The proof that Boris Johnson is now hurting the Tories’ election prospects

Conservative MPs in marginal seats will enter 2022 with an agonising dilemma. Do they stay loyal to Boris Johnson, who help them win two years ago – or depose him in order to keep their seats next time?

New research by the polling company Opinium shows that Johnson has lost his personal appeal, at least for the moment. Opinium’s normal voting intention question, reported in The Observer on Sunday, showed Labour, on 39%, seven points ahead of the Conservatives, 32%. But when Johnson’s name is added to the voting intention question, Tory support dips below 30%, and Labour’s lead increases from 7 to 12%.

It might be expected that simply reminding voters of the names of the two main party leaders would make little difference to voting intentions. The fact that it shifts the party lead by five points suggests that Johnson is now a significant drag on Tory fortunes. Perhaps some Conservative-inclined respondents intend to stay with the party if he goes before the next election – but not if he stays.

Opinium proceeded to ask people how they would vote under three further scenarios: if Sunak, Truss or Gove led the Tories. (Each scenario assumed that Keir Starmer remained Labour’s leader.) Sunak emerges as by far the most attractive successor. Labour stays ahead, but by just three points.

The nine-point difference between a 12% and 3% lead is worth around 60 seats that Tories would lose with Johnson but retained with Sunak – the great majority to Labour, together with a handful at risk to the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party.
Liz Truss is far less popular with the wider public that with Conservative activists. The latest survey of party members conducted by the Conservative Home website shows her as their favourite successor to Johnson, with Sunak second. However, Opinium’s figures suggest that she would do even worse than Johnson, and far worse than Sunak, and lead the Tories to a crushing 16 point defeat. Her one crumb of comfort is that Gove would do even worse: with him as leader, the Tories would lag Labour by 18 points.
As with all such polls, the numbers may change. Truss could reasonably argue that she is not yet as well known as Sunak; were she to be elected party leader, she would have ample opportunity to burnish her image. In contrast, Sunak might face a difficult spring, as living standards fall, with inflation outstripping pay, and tax rises coming in April. Even so, the gulf between Sunak and Truss is currently big enough to make the choice of Truss as leader a clear electoral risk.
Meanwhile one intriguing feature of Opinium’s figures is that they contradict the fashionable theory that women voters have become especially hostile to Johnson.
To be sure, the normal voting figures confirm the finding of other polls that Labour leads the Tories by women (11% in this poll) more than men (4%) – a gender gap of seven points. But it seems that this reflects a general verdict on the government as a whole, more than a personal rejection of Johnson.
If Johnson were a particular target of women’s dislike, we would expect the gender gap to widen further when his name is added to the voting question. Instead, it disappears completely: In a Starmer-Johnson contest, Labour leads by 12% among both men and women. The five-point increase in Labour’s lead is driven by men far more than women.
With Sunak, Truss and Gove, the gender gap returns (4, 8 and 8 points respectively): it is only with Johnson that it disappears completely. And as the same respondents answered all five voting questions, we can be confident that the extra hostility to Johnson uncovered by this survey really is more common among men than women.

This analysis was first published by The Guardian.