How worried should the government be about the post-Cummings polls?

Approval ratings tend to be a more useful indicator than voting intention, but there are some positives for the Conservatives in the figures so far.

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How worried should the government be about the polls following its defence of Dominic Cummings? Polls by Savanta ComRes, YouGov and JL Partners conducted following the story show significant falls in government approval on a range of measures, while both YouGov and Survation show a fall in voting intention.

I remain a longterm sceptic about the predictive value of voting intention, particularly at the beginning of a parliament. In 2010, five months into the coalition, the Liberal Democrats were still polling at around 15 per cent, and Labour were level pegging with the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats went down to eight per cent of the vote and Labour finished six points behind the Conservatives. In 2015, at a similar point in time, the Conservatives under David Cameron had a ten-point lead over Jeremy Corbyn. In 2017, Theresa May lost her parliamentary majority. For most of the remainder of 2017, Labour enjoyed a small but steady lead over the Conservatives, before going down to heavy defeat in 2019.

These election results do have a connection. While they didn’t show up in voting intention immediately, they were easier to detect if, instead of looking at the headline figures, you looked at approval ratings and general attitudes towards government and opposition. In 2010, the Liberal Democrats acquired deep levels of distrust among voters – something they were unable to shift by 2015, and really only managed to shake off by 2019, when they then walked into other problems. Although Ed Miliband enjoyed a consistent lead over the Conservatives for most of the 2010 parliament, he consistently trailed David Cameron as far as the questions of strong leader, best Prime Minister and job approval. Corbyn and May exchanged opinion poll leads throughout the 2017-9 parliament, and Corbyn made a big movement towards May as far as leadership and overall approval were concerned in the 2017 campaign, he never led on that question and fell decisively behind after the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury.

Overall perceptions of the government will, I think, once again be a more important gauge of how the parties are doing than voting intention.

As I write in my column this week, a government’s approval ratings shape everything else: how it is perceived, how its mistakes are treated, and ultimately whether or not it retains public goodwill. It’s far more important, particularly at this stage, what the government’s overall approval ratings are. It’s why I think the most harmful part of this story is not the offence, but the ridiculousness of the government’s response to it. It's a double whammy: the government is regarded not only as out of touch with ordinary people, but also as fundamentally unserious and incompetent.  

The good news from a Conservative perspective is that while Johnson’s lead over Starmer on “strong leader” has fallen to within the margin of error – different polls show one leading over the other, but in none is there clear daylight between them – Rishi Sunak remains the most popular politician in British politics.

They will hope the damage in their standing is temporary, rather than permanent: but it will be a source of comfort that, even if it is, at the moment, they still have a plausible contingency plan for the succession in place.

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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