The myth that keeps Boris Johnson in Downing Street

We are frequently told that Boris Johnson is a Heineken Tory: he can appeal to voters that other Conservatives cannot reach. This is one reason—for some the only reason—that many of the party’s MPs are reluctant to depose him, even as the scandal of Partygate becomes farcical. They fear that they are more likely to lose the next election if they are led by anyone else.

The fear is real—but mistaken. The belief that he has a special appeal to voters is simply wrong.

That is not to say that Johnson had no vocal supporters at the last election. Reports from candidates of enthusiasm for him on the legendary doorstep were unquestionably real. The question is not whether such voters exist, but how many there are. For that, we need well-conducted polls that count the views of a representative selection of voters, not the memories of particular loud voices lingering in the mind.

Ipsos MORI has been measuring the ratings of prime ministers and opposition leaders since 1977. Three lessons stand out.

First, Johnson was less popular at the time of the last election than Theresa May was at the 2017 election.

Shortly before polling day, Johnson had a rating of minus 20: the 56 per cent who were dissatisfied with his performance as prime minister in his first months outnumbered the 36 per cent who were satisfied. May’s rating at the end of the 2017 campaign—that is, after the calamities that caused Tory support and her rating to plunge—was minus seven (satisfied 43 per cent, dissatisfied 50 per cent).

Indeed, Johnson’s pre-election rating was the second worst of victorious prime ministers in the past 40 years. He came below Margaret Thatcher in 1983 (plus nine) and 1987 (minus four), John Major in 1992 (plus 12), Tony Blair in 2001 (minus two) and David Cameron in 2015 (minus two) as well as May in 2017. Only Blair in 2005 (minus 25) won with a worse rating—and it’s worth remembering that Labour’s support fell six points from the previous election, to 36 per cent. It was a victory, but scarcely a triumph.

Second, Johnson’s victory in 2019 owed less to his popularity than Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity.

Johnson’s rating of minus 20 was poor, but Corbyn’s rating was catastrophic: minus 44 (24 per cent satisfied, 68 per cent dissatisfied). Historically, it is the relative scores of the two main party leaders that have mattered more than the prime minister’s individual rating.

Gordon Brown’s rating at the time of the 2010 election was minus 24 (35 per cent satisfied, 59 per cent dissatisfied), similar to Johnson’s in 2019. The big difference between the two elections was the reputation of the opposition leader. Cameron’s rating in 2010 as polling day approached was plus three—a far cry from Corbyn’s minus 44.

Third, it’s not just at election time that Johnson suffers by comparison with former prime ministers.

Prime ministers usually enjoy a honeymoon, with strongly positive ratings in their early weeks. In rank order, these are Ipsos MORI’s figures from around two months into each premiership.

Johnson is the only prime minister to start with a negative rating. Thatcher was only just in positive territory: it took the Falklands war three years later to transform her reputation.

That trip down memory lane puts today’s figures into context. Ipsos MORI’s latest rating, shortly before Christmas, put Johnson at minus 37 (Satisfied 28 per cent, dissatisfied 65 per cent). More recent figures from other pollsters, asking slightly different questions, unsurprisingly report that Johnson’s reputation has deteriorated further since the new year.

He is still somewhat better off than other prime ministers at their worst—such as Major in December 1994 (minus 56) and Brown in July 2008 (minus 51). They, of course, went on to lose the following election. If Ipsos MORI’s poll reports in the next few weeks that Johnson’s rating is minus 42 or worse (which seems plausible, at the very least) then he will be in a worse position than any prime minister who managed to win the following election. (Thatcher, who scored minus 41 in December 1981, is the current holder of that unhappy record.)

History provides a useful, but far from infallible, guide to the future. Nothing is certain. But two conclusions are hard to escape. First, while Keir Starmer’s ratings aren’t terrible, aren’t great (minus 21 just before Christmas). If he can improve on those figures while Johnson keeps floundering then Labour’s polling lead will continue to grow.

The second conclusion is that Johnson’s party needs to jettison the notion that he is some kind of vote-winning genius. He is no such thing, and has never been during his time in Downing Street. If Tory MPs cling to their belief in his magical electoral properties and keep him in office, they will be doing Labour a massive favour, and themselves none.

This blog was first published by Prospect