Boris Johnson has been in office for a week and we now have a week’s worth of polling about how his new government is being received by the country as a whole – although regrettably, we don’t have any Scotland-specific opinion polling to talk about. What does it show?
Johnson has restored the Conservatives’ leadership advantage, at least for now
As I’ve written before, headline voting intention, particularly outside of election season, has a lot of pitfalls and parties should be a lot more concerned about what the polling shows under the hood. If you asked me if I’d rather my preferred party had a lead as far as who was best at tackling the big vote-moving issues (leadership, the economy, running public services) or a lead over its political opponents, I’d choose leading on those issues over leading the polls, at least at this stage in the electoral cycle.
So the unalloyed good news for the Conservative party is that Johnson has restored this advantage. By the end of Theresa May’s tenure she had a lead over Jeremy Corbyn on these indices (best PM, strong leader, net approval) in the low single digits and sometimes not at all.
Across the polls, Johnson’s lead over Corbyn is in the double digits and in some cases is more than 20 points. That would make me very happy if I worked in Downing Street, but…
This advantage doesn’t extend to one very important voter group
There are two groups of voters who do not pick Johnson over Corbyn on the various leadership questions – the first, obviously, are the 22 to 28 per cent of people who are regularly saying they would vote Labour at the next election.
The second are the 18 to 25 per cent of people saying they will vote Liberal Democrat at the next election. Across Opinium, Deltapoll, Comres and YouGov polls, Liberal Democrat voters will pick Corbyn over Johnson (although for the most part, “Don’t Know” beats both).
This would worry me a lot if I were a Conservative. The political gamble they’ve taken is that their new leader, new Cabinet and Brexit approach are doing a great deal to service the political preferences of their remaining leave voters and of voters who have switched from voting Tory to backing the Brexit party.
But they are also doing a great deal to tell Remain voters – whether they stuck with them reluctantly in 2017 or have already been lost – that they really ought to look elsewhere. Although Labour loses more votes to the Liberal Democrats, they have historically been a bigger direct danger to the Conservative party as far as parliamentary constituencies are concerned, a pattern that was born out in the 2019 local elections and to a lesser extent the European elections.
The Conservative strategy towards this group is clear – do some eyecatching stuff on policy and remind voters that any vote that isn’t for a Tory risks a Corbyn-led government. But that so few Liberal Democrat voters choose Johnson over Corbyn would suggest to me that this approach might not work very well.
Except when you pair him with Sajid Javid…
There is one very interesting exception to this pattern.
Regardless of the pollster and how you ask the leadership question, the Liberal Democrats’ preferences run like this: Don’t Know, a big gap, Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson.
That is except when you get to Deltapoll, who have asked who they think is better for the economy – Corbyn and McDonnell in Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street respectively or Johnson and Sajid Javid, with the latter doing better among professe Liberal Democrat backers.
This could be a reflection on Sajid Javid’s popularity – when you control for people who had actually heard of the candidates he was the most popular across both the Remain and Leave divide of the leadership field – but I think this is probably simply a natural outgrowth of the Conservatives’ overall lead on the economy and it underlines that for all we talk about the Conservatives’ interests in fighting a Brexit election, actually they, like Labour, have an active incentive to move the election onto other things.
The difficulty is, like Labour, it’s hard to see how they can do this.