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12 January 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 8:18am

How public opinion has turned against Boris Johnson more than any other major world leader

The Prime Minister has suffered a remarkable fall in public approval during the Covid-19 crisis – but could he yet recover?

By Ben Walker

Boris Johnson has suffered the largest fall in public approval during the Covid-19 crisis of any leader of a major economy* according to a New Statesman analysis of the latest opinion polling.

Public opinion has shifted fast across the world since the start of 2020, as countries battle with the consequences of Covid-19. But of all the world leaders to see public opinion change as a consequence of the pandemic, none has watched it move more rapidly and radically against them than the UK Prime Minister. 

Morning Consult polling finds that when the national lockdown was introduced to the UK in March of last year, Johnson’s net approval was at a plus 14. This means more people were favourable towards him than unfavourable by a margin of 14 percentage points.

Boris Johnson’s net favourability crashed and burned in 2020
Net favourable/unfavourable scores from Morning Consult’s seven day rolling average

Soon afterwards, Johnson’s public approval had surged to a net positive of 40 percentage points  the highest of any world leader. The lockdown, endorsed by 93 per cent of British adults, was perceived as decisive action at a difficult time. His numbers were a clear vote of confidence from Britons anxious about Covid-19. Perceptions of the Prime Minister as a strong leader increased, and the lockdown measures were, according to ONS behavioral surveys, followed to the letter.

But by the end of May, British public opinion was starting to turn. Confusion over increasingly changeable local restrictions and the collective outrage over Dominic Cummings breaking the rules to drive to Durham and Barnard Castle caused favourability towards the Prime Minister to stall, and then fall. Perceptions of his competence and strength dried up. Now, according to the latest polling from December, Johnson sits with a favourability score of minus 15  a collapse of 27 percentage points since the start of the first lockdown.

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This fall from grace is the biggest drop of any leader tracked by Morning Consult. And it is all the more remarkable because of the size of the initial surge in approval he received at the start of the crisis.

Many world leaders saw a jump in popularity, although the extent to which they have sustained the improvements varies significantly.

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In Germany, for instance, Chancellor Angela Merkel also experienced an upsurge in confidence in her leadership after the first state chose to lock down. But unlike Johnson, there has been little to no sign of it subsiding. 

The growth in disapproval to Boris Johnson is a world away from what the French and Germans think of Macron and Merkel respectively
Index of public disapproval since March. 100 = baseline

Even President Macron in France, who started the year with some of the worst net favourability scores of any western world leader, has yet to receive a hit in public opinion over his handling of the crisis. Like Merkel, Macron received a bounce in March upon his country locking down and has managed to sustain those numbers ever since.

Italy and Spain, however, are a different story. The leaders of the two nations, Giuseppe Conte and Pedro Sanchez respectively, have both experienced marked declines in public favourability since the heights of the first wave, albeit not to the same scale as those seen by Boris Johnson.

And two leaders further afield geographically  Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and the US’s Donald Trump  are notable for their failure to spark an approval boost at any stage for their handling of the crisis.

Bolsonaro, who has experienced the second largest fall during the crisis after Johnson, saw his public approval tank from the start. Unique among most world leaders, his approach was to dismiss the pandemic. As a result, Brazilians turned against their president, with public opinion polls between April and July 2020 recording some of the largest margins of disapproval for him since his election in 2018. Bolsonaro’s net score, however, has in recent months experienced a minute recovery and currently sits at a far higher level than that of the British Prime Minister  higher, too, than US president. 

As for Donald Trump, throughout his presidency he saw only minor shifts in public opinion. The polarised state of American political discourse means very few people were prone to changing their opinion about him except in the margins  and it was in the margins, it should be said, where Joe Biden won in November’s election. Such polarisation meant that even in the early weeks of the crisis when other world leaders were seeing a significant popularity boost, Trump’s public approval score recorded an improvement of just three points. And even this small gain was not to last: whether Americans were repelled by the president’s comments on injecting disinfectant as a form of treatment or disturbed by the lack of a clear federal response, by May and June Trump’s favourables had worsened to some of the worst of his presidency. The ratio of Americans disaffected with Trump is now similar to the ratio of Britons who feel let down by Johnson.

But to return to the UK, what does this mean for the Prime Minister’s future?

For a normal politician, declining approval ratings on the scale Johnson has suffered might spell the beginning of the end of their time in office. However, this peculiar Prime Minister has become accustomed in recent years to significant yo-yoing of public opinion, and it is possible he could yet bounce back, as he has in the past.

Before the 2019 general election the British public’s first impressions of Johnson as Prime Minister were poor, but his electoral victory and “oven ready” Brexit deal turned this picture on its head. What’s to say that the landscape of post-Covid Britain won’t offer Johnson a chance to repeat this trick?

According to Opinium,  Johnson entered the coronavirus crisis with a majority of the public thinking him strong and decisive, with the nation’s best interests at heart. He ended 2020 with all of those statements null and void. Opinium in December found just one in three Brits marking him strong, three in ten thinking him decisive, and four in ten thinking he still prioritises the nation’s best interests.

The opportunity for him to turn these numbers around again is there. As the vaccine roll-out fuels hope that the end of this crisis is finally in sight, feelings of optimism may begin to sweep the British nation. “We might be able to book that summer holiday,” as one caller to Times Radio put it.

But optimistic for 2021 though we all are, the economic aspect of the coronavirus crisis is yet to take center stage. And it is on this that Brits may make their most definitive judgement on the Prime Minister’s performance. Will the present dissatisfaction shift back to the traditional view of preferring the Conservatives to Labour when it comes to protecting the economy, or will the Prime Minister and his incumbent government meet the same fate as Gordon Brown following the financial crisis of 2008?

Labour leads on the cost of living – likely to be a headline issue for years in the aftermath of the pandemic. Could Johnson – or if he himself is too tarnished, perhaps Sunak  recover after an economic catastrophe where Brown did not?

Watch this space.

*Excludes China and Russia where public opinion polling… isn’t as reliable.