Why Keir Starmer should be happy about the polls – and worried about Rishi Sunak

The Labour leader has cause for optimism in the polling, but there is one cloud on the horizon.

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Although political Twitter tends to get excited/depressed (delete as applicable) over the outliers, the most important trend in British political polling at the moment is their stability: of a medium-sized Conservative lead over Labour in the polls, but of near level-pegging as far as net approval is concerned between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer.

As I’ve said on our podcast, British opinion polling at the moment looks to me a lot like it did in the Cameron-Miliband era: but the other way round. Back then, Labour gloried in opinion poll leads of varying lengths and most commentators were writing David Cameron’s obituary. But Cameron enjoyed a decisive lead as far as the question of who made the best prime minister is concerned, and while by the spring of 2014, the polls still showed that Miliband was on course to enter Downing Street, the economy was growing, job creation was occurring at pace. The happy (from an electoral perspective) combination of the rise in the income tax threshold, the low oil price and the petrol tax duty meant that most measures of wellbeing, including the Office of National Statistics’ then very new index, were flashing green.

Now in 2020, the Conservative party has an opinion lead. But Johnson does not have a decisive lead – indeed the difference between his and Starmer’s approval ratings on the question of best PM look a lot like the gap between Cameron and Gordon Brown. The incumbent prime minister essentially always leads on this question because it is a contest between imagination and memory: Boris Johnson is Prime Minister and Keir Starmer is not.  But Johnson’s ratings would definitely give me conniptions were I in CCHQ.

The economic picture is not rosy either. Redundancies are occurring at pace and everyone expects that if the furlough scheme and other support mechanism end as expected in the autumn there will be further redundancies. The ONS’ measurements of well-being show rising anxiety, personal discomfort and growing unhappiness.

So, using the same metrics that made me think that the headline opinion polls in 2015 were probably offering Labour false comfort in 2015, I think the headline opinion polls in 2020 are giving the Conservatives false comfort in 2020.

There is an important point of divergence, however: the position of the Chancellor. Ed Balls and Rishi Sunak have quite a lot in common: they were or are quite probably the biggest economic brains in their respective parliamentary parties, they enjoy their position not because of their personal political and ideological proximity to the party leader but because they were the most qualified available candidate when the post became unexpectedly vacant.

But the big and important difference is that Balls was a big drag on Labour’s popularity. He was, like Miliband, personally unpopular, and in some polls he was even more unpopular than his leader. Before he reintroduced himself to the public on Strictly, Balls was consistently one of the most disliked politicians in the United Kingdom. While I don’t think that all of Labour’s problems would have gone away had Ed Balls not had a big role, he certainly didn’t help.

With Sunak, it’s quite the other way round: he is far and away the most popular politician in the United Kingdom at the moment and head and shoulders above the rest of the Cabinet as far as public esteem is concerned. We can’t quantify what the "Sunak Effect" on the polls is at the moment, but it seems to me highly likely that Sunak’s popularity is helping the Conservatives out electorally in quite a significant way.

How much does that matter in the long-term, and whether Sunak can isolate himself from those worrying trends on the horizon, is probably the single biggest factor in deciding whether the Conservative poll lead of 2020 goes the same way as the Labour poll lead of 2011.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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