How to judge the early polling on Boris Johnson’s premiership

The key to analysing the new PM’s popularity is to distinguish between turning points and talking points. 

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The next seven days are very likely to see a wave of new polling data released looking at public support for Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, but what can be learned from the results? Newspapers and broadcasters will be discussing data on how the public are reacting to the new PM, but while this coverage can be interesting, and gives people something to speculate on while we wait for the new cabinet to settle in, it is little more than “just a bit of fun” in terms of its long-term explanatory power. The real insight comes from the emerging trends.

We would expect any new prime minister to enjoy a modest poll bounce and Johnson is certainly no exception — even if the first poll conducted since his victory shows little significant movement. Should a bounce occur, the immediate question will be precisely how big it is. But while size matters, the far more pertinent question is whether any changes in voting intention data will be a “V-shaped trend” or an “L-shaped trend”. For readers who don’t speak robogeek, “V-shaped trends” are temporary fluctuations where the data returns to the previous levels seen prior to an event whereas “L-shaped trends” are changes that stick — in other words will it be a real turning point or simply a talking point?

With this in mind, my sense is that No 10 will be paying very close attention to all of the polling (including their own internal polling) to try and answer the fundamental question that Johnson faces: what is more difficult? Winning a new general election before you have secured Brexit? Or securing Brexit without a new general election?

Will any bounce be of sufficient size and longevity to suggest that a truly useful Conservative majority could be won? Of course, it will not be possible to tell from just one poll (or even a series of polls in rapid succession) where the trends are going, but over the next few weeks the picture may become more clear. Like so many things, however, I think whether or not Johnson chooses to actually take the risk of an election could largely come down to Brexit.

Buoyed by a strong poll bounce, No 10 might play hardball with Brexit and leave things to the last minute in the hope of time pressure focusing minds on both sides of the channel. Alternatively, while August is spent analysing the polls, it may well also feature a great deal of movement behind the scenes as emissaries are despatched to Brussels, Berlin, Paris and Dublin to listen to the mood music and comprehensively investigate the limits of the possible. With fewer than 100 days remaining until 31 October, could concessions be gained of sufficient significance that Johnson could persuade enough MPs to pass a revised deal? August may help to provide an answer.

Team Boris are reportedly aiming for a post-Brexit election in 2020, though this has been described as “wishful briefing”. Meanwhile, the Brexit Party is privately saying that it could take more than 50 seats from the Conservatives and more than 20 from Labour. This is extremely unlikely based on current polling, but it demonstrates the scope of their ambitions. Nigel Farage has already signalled his intent to consider some sort of electoral pact with the Conservatives, but what he demands in return, or whether the Tories would (or should) be interested remains unclear.

Finally, let us not rule out the role that the resurgent Liberal Democrats, under Jo Swinson’s leadership, could play in a general election. Should Labour continue to dither and unconvince on Brexit, might the Lib Dems’ avowedly pro-Remain stance pay dividends at the ballot box? While possible, the data as it stands points to any dividend that does occur being mainly confined to metropolitan liberal city constituencies that now lean Remain. Constituencies such as, say, Uxbridge and South Ruislip, currently held by one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

Ultimately, nobody yet knows what is going to happen — not in Britain or over in Europe. It is too early to tell, but August could be an interesting month.

Joe Twyman is the co-founder and director of Deltapoll and was previously head of political & social at YouGov

Joe Twyman is co-founder of the public opinion consultancy Deltapoll and co-presenter of the Polling Politics podcast. He is on Twitter @joetwyman.

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