Why Boris Johnson should ignore the polls

To the list of government failures in tackling the pandemic, one more must now be added. Ministers are misreading the state of public opinion and risk making a bad situation worse.

It has been widely reported and not seriously denied that Boris Johnson is nervous about relaxing the lockdown because most voters oppose the idea. We are told that the regular private polls commissioned by his office make that opposition terrifyingly clear.

I have not seen any of that data. But while private polls often explore issues in more detail than published polls, they never tell a different overall story. And the figures in the public domain do, indeed, show that most people fear that the lockdown is being eased too fast. Let us look at the numbers, and then consider the reasons why the prime minister and his colleagues are drawing the wrong conclusions from them.

Recent polls by Opinium and Ipsos MORI have asked similar questions and produced similar results: just over half the public think the government is relaxing the lockdown too fast, while one in seven think the relaxation is happening too slowly. Just one in four think the government is getting it right.

This week a six-country study by Kekst CNC found that Britons divide three-to-one in saying the government’s priority should be to limit the spread of the disease rather than avoid a recession. That margin is greater than in any of the other countries surveyed by Kekst: Germany, France, Sweden, the United States and Japan.

The message seems to be clear: voters want economic recovery to take a back seat, at least for the time being. Relaxing the two-metre rule, getting pupils back to schools and workers back to offices and factories: Britain’s voters seem to be saying, “hold off; don’t take any risks.”

This would suggest that No 10’s assessment of public opinion is correct. But I am not so sure. Here are some other poll findings.

When the lockdown was imposed in March, Opinium found that 65 per cent approved of the government’s handling of the crisis, while 23 per cent disapproved—a net rating of plus 42. By last week, the figures were: approve 30 per cent, disapprove 48 per cent. A net rating of minus 18. The 60-point change in the net rating in less than three months is the biggest, fastest shift I can recall for any government on any big issue. The only comparable shift that comes to mind is the public disillusionment with the Iraq war in 2003, and that took longer.

Kekst’s six-country survey piles on the gloom. In Britain more than any other country, voters draw a clear distinction between the government (doing badly) and the health service, supermarkets, manufacturers and online retailers (all doing well).

Moreover, Britons are well aware that other countries are doing better. Kekst asked people to rate the way 16 different countries are handling the crisis overall. British voters place Britain last but one, with a net score of minus 26. Only the US (minus 73) is thought to be doing worse. The news from other parts of the world has been getting through. The countries that British voters regard most highly are Germany (plus 63), South Korea (plus 54) and Denmark (plus 47). Italy, Spain and China all have negative ratings, but as a nation we think we are doing worse than all three.

How does all that relate to views about relaxing the lockdown? Here is how. Trust in the government is low and falling. Voters are increasingly suspicious of ministers’ motives when they talk about rethinking the two-metre rule or schools and shops reopening. The underlying message is NOT “hold off; don’t take any risks”; it is “after the way you have screwed things up so far, we don’t trust you to get this right.” Put another way, suppose that Johnson’s government was as trusted as Angela Markel’s (Germans’ rating of their own government is plus 61, according to Kekst—a far cry from the minus 26 that we award ours). In those circumstances, we would be far more likely to say ministers are getting the health/economy trade-off right, and less likely to blame them for relaxing the lockdown too fast.

So what should the government do? First and foremost, if it is going to act on a snapshot of public opinion, it should draw the right conclusions. But there is a deeper point. For once, I would actually urge ministers to ignore the polls, both public and private. They should do what they think will help most to rebuild prosperity with the minimum of risk to people’s health—regardless of whether particular measures are popular or unpopular. The public verdict that will matter is that, sometime next year, when it becomes clear that the government has or has not steered Britain towards a healthier, more prosperous future.

If, instead, ministers cower before poll findings and do what voters today think is right, they could be in for a shock. I cannot think of a single occasion when the failure of a popular policy has caused voters to say: “Well done, ministers, for doing what we wanted, even though it’s all gone wrong.” On the contrary: we voters tend to be an ungrateful lot. We punish failure, even if we backed the failed policy to begin with.

More broadly, we instinctively abide by the essential principle of representative democracy. We elect politicians to take decisions on our behalf, and judge them on the results. To be sure, we live in extraordinary times. The choices that the government faces are difficult; their consequences are uncertain. But ministers chose to go into politics and must live by its unforgiving rules. Pandering to a superficial reading of public opinion is, like Talleyrand’s verdict on the execution of a Bourbon duke in 1804, worse than a crime: it’s a blunder.

This blog was first published by Prospect https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/no-10-is-misreading-the-polls-on-lockdown-coronavirus-two-metre-rule-public-opinion