War and politics: lessons from Eden, Blair and Churchill

Perhaps opinion polls should come with the same warnings as financial advertisements: past performance does not guarantee results. Even so, as Boris Johnson faces criticism for Britain’s role in the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, a trip down memory lane suggests that foreign policy disasters do not necessarily destroy the reputations of governments.

Let’s start with the Suez debacle in 1956, when Britain and France invaded Egypt and had to pull out within days. Sir Anthony Eden resigned two months later as Prime Minister. The sorry saga led to big long-term changes in UK foreign and defence policy. But if you looked solely at the polls, you would be hard pressed to find any impact on public opinion at the time.

In the months leading up to the invasion, Gallup’s monthly polls showed Conservative support steady at 42-43 per cent. In November and December, immediately following the humiliation of defeat, Tory support actually rose slightly, to 45 per cent. Even if we put that down to sampling fluctuation, it’s clear that support for the Conservatives held up. As for Eden himself, his resignation was the consequence of serious illness rather than public contempt. In December 1956, 56 per cent approved of his performance as Prime Minister. This was his highest figure of the year.

Tory support slipped in the early months of 1957, following Eden’s resignation, but only slightly: to 40-42 per cent. And at the following general election in 1959, the Tories almost doubled their majority to 100 in the House of Commons.

The Iraq invasion of  March 2003 had a bigger impact on public opinion, but again the Government survived. In the build-up to the war, Labour, on 38-39 per cent, retained a modest lead over the Conservatives. Immediately after the war, Labour’s support rose to 42 per cent, 12 points ahead of the Tories.

However, as the months went by and no weapons of mass destruction were found, support for the war fell sharply. YouGov found that a two-to-one majority in favour of the war just after Saddam Hussein’s removal from office had evaporates six months later.

Labour also lost ground, but not massively. It dipped to 35-37 per cent in polls in late 2003. Tony Blair’s reputation as Prime Minister suffered rather more. In April 2003, Mori found that 47 per cent were satisfied with his performance as PM. By September it dropped to 29 per cent. Even so, in May 2005, Blair led Labour to its third successive victory. True, the party lost 57 seats. But if the result of that election – a Labour majority of 66 – is counted as a failure, it is a failure that Keir Starmer would surely love to emulate.

To look for a Prime Minister ejected from office after a war, we have to go back to 1945. Winston Churchill’s personal popularity – an approval rating of no less than 83 per cent – could not save the Conservatives from one of its greatest electoral catastrophes, when Clement Attlee led Labour to a landslide victory.

Those were, of course, exceptional times. And, quite apart from the specific circumstances of that contest, the character of elections, like everything else, has changed utterly since those days. It was, however, a telling example of a truth that has endured. Elections are won by those (such as Attlee) whom voters see as competent, in touch with their concerns, and likely to deliver a better future, rather than those, like Churchill, who seem out of touch and set on repeating the mistakes of the past.

So: what impact will the events of the past fortnight have on the long-term poll ratings of Boris Johnson and the Conservatives? I don’t know. What I do predict is that what will matter electorally is whether Johnson’s actions on Afghanistan, alongside Covid, the economy and everything else, enhance or diminish his reputation for competence, strength, and keeping in touch with the voters who switched to the Conservative banner in 2019.

This blog was first published by Prospect