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20 August 2020

How much has the A-level debacle damaged the Conservatives?

Public approval of the government has fallen to its lowest level this year, but it remains higher than before the 2019 election. 

By Ben Walker

Over the past week there has been a growing public backlash against the government’s handling of A-level results. In the absence of exams, 40 per cent of students had their results downgraded owing to a computer algorithm used by the English exam regulator Ofqual, a process also followed in the rest of the UK.

Despite the eventual U-turn towards using teacher predicted grades, polling suggests the damage has already been done. Three-quarters of Britons told YouGov the government has handled the matter badly

The U-turn led to grading based solely on teacher assessments, a method of marking that has the confidence of over 80 per cent of teachers, and two-thirds of voters.

As for a scapegoat, a plurality (40 per cent) of voters want the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to resign; just 21 per cent want him to stay, while 39 per cent say they don’t know. Among Conservative voters, 38 per cent think Williamson should stay in post, 28 per cent think he should resign, and 34 per cent aren’t sure. 

[see also: How a government led by technocrats nearly destroyed a generation of social mobility]

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These figures, however, are not as overwhelmingly negative for the Education Secretary as one might have expected. The furore surrounding the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick approving a housing project led by Conservative donor Richard Desmond, for instance, saw 39 per cent of voters of all parties call for Jenrick to resign – just a single percentage point less than Williamson. Both figures pale in comparison to the 59 per cent of voters who wanted Dominic Cummings to resign after he broke lockdown rules back in May.

Plurality of Brits want Gavin Williamson to resign as Education Secretary

Nonetheless, though the A-level U-turn might not force Williamson’s departure, public confidence in the government and the Conservative Party has been dented. One in four Tory voters now say they’re unsure whether a Labour or Conservative government would be more competent. And one in ten now say they would prefer Keir Starmer as prime minister to Boris Johnson.

Though the damage is evident, there is a nagging question: does this even matter? Will it matter in a year’s time? Is the affair shaping public opinion in a sustained way?

Well, consider this. Public approval of the government has fallen to its lowest level this year, but it is still higher than the numbers on the eve of the 2019 general election, when the Conservatives achieved an 80-seat majority – their largest since 1987. 

Government approval has crashed from its peak in March

But it’s still higher than what was seen during the 2019 general election campaign

Favourability towards the Prime Minister has likewise plummeted from a 66 per cent high in April to 44 per cent at the start of August – likely due in large part to his handling of the Covid-19 crisis. But again, while the latest figures are bad for Johnson, they are comparable to the numbers during the general election campaign.

[see also: The A-level fiasco shows why Boris Johnson is profoundly unfit to be Prime Minister]

It’s worth considering two points. The first is that the UK isn’t used to liking its own politicians. Only twice in the last 11 years has the public approved of the government more than it has disapproved – the first occasion being after the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, and the second after the imposition of the UK-wide lockdown. 

The second point is that public opinion is still in pandemic mode. Sixty per cent of Brits rank Covid-19 as the most important issue facing the country today. Though issues other than the virus are beginning to gain traction – immigration and Brexit both now have the attention of at least three in ten Brits – the tendency to rally around established leaders and institutions during a crisis endures, though it is much reduced since March and April.

As a consequence, any current backlash over government policy – whether on refugees or A-levels – is not guaranteed to be as sustained or significant it would have been at any other time. The population’s attention remains “locked down”, even as physical restrictions ease. Though the salience of other subjects will continue to grow, Covid-19 has been a unique and all-consuming issue that will shape opinion for some time to come.