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13 October 2021

Why are the Tories still leading in the polls?

The Conservatives have been in power for 11 years. Why isn’t the country sick of them yet?

By Ben Walker

For the past two years, the UK’s Tory party have yet to seriously cede their lead in the opinion polls. Eleven years in office and three prime ministers to write home about, it’s looking likely they’ll be in government for a grand total of at least 14 to 19 years.

With the conference season wound-up, and increasingly dire news about fuel and food shortages hitting the airwaves, one has to wonder: why aren’t the Conservatives getting beat for this? What is it that, despite everything, is keeping them ahead?

Allow me to muse for a moment.

Reason 1: Boris Johnson, the heir to Blair (you read that right)

The success of the Conservatives is in part down to them being no longer, in essence, the Tory party, but the Boris Johnson party.

In a rush to abandon ideology and embrace the dividends of Vote Leave-style all-things-to-all-men populism, Johnson has remoulded his image into something capable of holding the centre ground. In a way, Johnson is the true heir to Tony Blair – the master storyteller of political narratives. Unlike Blair, Johnson didn’t enter office overwhelmingly popular. In fact, more Brits today are despairing of the current PM than the number who are favourable. But what makes him an electoral positive, and key in the elections to come, is that his popularity, diminishing though it is, is concentrated among the “right” sort of voters – the voters in the seats that matter.

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His predecessor, David Cameron, wasn’t as lucky. In 2014, constituency surveys showed the then Tory leader being just as disliked in key marginal seats as he was across the country. Johnson, meanwhile, is today more liked in so-called Red Wall areas and battleground seats the Tories won from Labour than the nation as a whole.

Johnson is no star without baggage. He doesn't enjoy widespread popularity. But he’s popular where it matters. And unless his image fades or he finds himself replaced by a character without as big a pull in the marginals that matter, those Red Wall seats will very likely be staying Conservative in the general elections to come.

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Reason 2: The Tory party, now no longer the Tory party

The Tories have been in office for over 11 years now, and one would be forgiven for thinking at least a portion of the public do feel the Conservatives have gone on for long enough, that those who still get angry about Gordon Brown “selling the gold” would now find something irritating about the successive Tory governments too.

But not so! Or rather, less so. When you consider the churn in leadership and key player positions that those 11 years have seen, and contrast it with the relative stability of New Labour, one shouldn’t be surprised by the findings of a recent Redfield and Wilton survey for the New Statesman. Voters were found to say Johnson’s Conservatives have little in common with David Cameron’s Tories – a feeling most intense in England’s northern regions, the part of the country that swung most heavily to Johnson in 2019.

To a great many voters, Johnson has reset the novelty of a Tory government. So long as this kind of intoxicating personality is at the helm of the Tories, that perception is likely to continue. The Conservative Party today is not the party of five or ten years ago, and voters see that. We can all blame Boris Johnson for that.

Reason 3: The Labour Party

There are only so many times you can point out that the cards are stacked in the Tory party’s favour. That is clear for all to see. But the absence of an opposition breathing down the neck of the government should also be noted.

Labour has an image problem. Its leader has yet to impress both with the general public and, more importantly, with Leave voters. English voters identify more with the Tories on issues of national identity and patriotism than they do with Labour. The Labour Party is an irrelevance on the economy, the metric for sound administration. And what leads they’ve gleaned in the past year come from falling confidence among Tory voters, not rising support for Labour.

That said, while Labour has two decades of a poor public image to unpick, the fundamentals that keep the Tories an appealing force are just as much Johnson’s doing as they are Keir Starmer’s. And Tory activists who grumbled about their leader during the conference ought to remember this. Because when Johnson goes, there’s no guarantee that loyalty or enthusiasm from Red Wall voters will stick around. The Conservatives lead and dominate today, but it’s an awfully risky move for the party to be now so electorally dependent on the capabilities of one man. Very New Labour, I’d say.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s conference speech polled better than Boris Johnson’s – but does it matter?]

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