Why Johnson is down but not yet out

Here we go again. Fresh suggestions come daily that Boris Johnson’s departure is imminent. The latest theory is that the Conservatives will do so badly in next week’s elections that their MPs will submit enough letters to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, to trigger the process for booting Johnson out of Downing Street.

Maybe. Johnson’s premiership is like an aircraft wing with metal fatigue. We can be sure that it will collapse one day, but we can’t tell when.

The significant thing is that the Prime Minister hasn’t gone already. The torrid events of the past few months, ranging from Johnson for being Britain’s first Prime Minister to be punished for committing a criminal offence, to rising inflation, crippling energy prices and a record drop in living standards, should have settled the matter before now. Why hasn’t it? The hard truth is that different sets of evidence can be cited to demonstrate either that Johnson is doomed – or that he isn’t.

Start with the bad news for the Prime Minister. His ratings are terrible. The latest YouGov data finds that just 24 per cent say they have a favourable view of him, while 69 per cent say “unfavourable”. That produces a net rating of minus 45. No Prime Minister has ever fallen that low and gone on to win the following general election.

As table/chart 1 shows, Johnson had an even worse rating, minus 49, in early February, when stories about Partygate were at their most intense. The Ukraine war has helped him – but only slightly. As seriously, his rating is even worse than that of his party, which stands at minus 40. Far from lifting Tory support, he is dragging it down.

A Opinium survey (table/chart 2) pinpoints Johnson’s greatest weaknesses. By margins of almost four-to-one, voters say he is untrustworthy and out of touch. His ratings on other character judgements are also bad, if not quite as disastrous. On all six characteristics, Starmer’s net score is far better than Johnson’s.

However, it is not just Johnson’s character that is dragging down Tory support. His signature policy at the last election – “get Brexit done” – is not going well. By a consistent ten-point margin – typically 49-39 per cent – voters now tell YouGov that the UK was wrong to leave the European Union.

Opinium, asking a slightly different question, produces an even sharper divide. By almost two-to-one – 58-31 per cent – voters think Brexit is going badly.

That does not mean voters are clamouring by a large majority to rejoin the EU. Polls paint a mixed picture, but most point to something close to a 50-50 division. For the moment, the more relevant figures are those shown in table/chart 3. Offered four policy options, the most popular is, indeed, rejoining the EU – but the figure is still only 30 per cent. What is striking is that the second most popular option is a form of Brexit that brings the UK closer to the EU – 25 per cent. Together, those two groups add up to 55 per cent – far outnumbering the 33 per cent who want the UK-EU relationship to stay as it is now (18 per cent) or grow further apart (15 per cent).

This indicates that hard-line Tory Brexiters may be popular with party activists – but not with the wider electorate. Tories may be fooling themselves if that think it will be to their advantage to beat the Brexit drum at the next general election.

Now to the evidence that offers Johnson a glimmer of hope. The first is Rishi Sunak’s near-certain demise as a possible successor. No longer need Johnson fear a challenge from the man who for some months was his most obvious successor.

Johnson’s other hope lies in the reputation of the Labour Party and its leader. As Table 1, shows, Labour and Starmer have negative ratings; and on his personal characteristics, (table/chart 2) Starmer’s scores hover in the region of one-third positive, one-third negative, one-third don’t know. If Johnson’s problem is that most voters actively dislike him, Starmer’s is that, more than two years into his party leadership, he remains an enigma to huge numbers of voters.

Looking ahead, the lesson from past parliaments is that oppositions tend to see their mid-term polling numbers shrink as the following general election approaches. For many voters, the mid-term appetite for change, when the prospect is a year or two a away, gives way to the sentiment of better-the-devil-you-know, as the day of decision approaches.

This brings us to the relevance of next week’s local elections. Table 4 shows what happened at the equivalent stage of past Conservative governments. Compare first the polling leads in the run-up to those local elections with the projected national outcome of those elections. The figures vary, in 1990 and 1995 considerably, but the broad-brush stories are similar. When Labour is miles ahead in the polls, it does well in the local elections; when the national race is tight, the local elections show the two main parties reasonably close together.

The real story is what happened in the two years after the mid-term contests. The Tories went on to win four of the five following general elections, despite being behind in every one of the local elections held two years before. Even in the one election when Labour ousted the Tories – the Blair landslide in 1997 – there was still a substantial Conservative recovery from their plight in mid-term.

So: how should we judge the outcome of next month’s local elections? Pay little attention to the figures for gains and losses of council seats. Almost half the English seats being contested are in London, where Labour did exceptionally well last time, in 2018. It has limited scope for further gains, although it might end Tory control of two flagship boroughs, Wandsworth and Westminster.

Many of the contests outside London are also in strong Labour areas with few opportunities for further gains.

So Tories who publicly fear a bloodbath are playing the expectations game. They know they are unlikely to lose vast numbers of councillors. They are simply positioning themselves to claim limited losses as a success.

The figures that will matter are the projected Britain-wide share of the vote. The Tories are unlikely to come out ahead. They have not done this in any of the five equivalent sets of mid-term elections in the past 40 years. Keeping Labour’s lead below three per cent should cheer the Conservatives and worry Labour. A Labour lead close to six per cent would be par for the course, given recent polls. It would take a Labour lead substantially above six per cent for Labour to have reason to cheer. Even then, history invites the Tories not be too downcast – and warns Starmer not to think too hard just yet about changing the wallpaper in the flat above 10 Downing Street.

There is, though, one big unknown. What if the future diverges markedly from the past? What if there is no big recovery in Conservative fortunes as the next general election approaches? We are living through strange times. Even when the war in Ukraine is over, the combined impact of Covid, Partygate, inflation and higher taxes, and a Prime Minister with terrible ratings and a criminal record, might thwart a Tory revival. If the party cannot escape its recent past, historical polling patterns might be irrelevant to the future. The Tories cannot even be certain that a new leader will revive their fortunes, if voters blame the party, and not just Johnson for the failings of recent times.

What is more, one reason why Labour has only a narrow lead might fade as the next election draws near. Memories of the Corbyn years still hold the party back. As time passes, and if Starmer can burnish his own reputation, the party has the chance to persuade voters that it has truly changed and is once again fit to govern.

We already have recent experience of elections defying the rhythms of history. At the start of the 2017 general election campaign, when the Tories enjoyed a double-digit lead, the smart money said that election campaigns make only modest differences to party support. The smart money got that election wrong. Maybe history will be defied again.

After next month’s elections, attention will turn to Wakefield, whose MP, Imran Ahmad Khan, has resigned his seat, following his conviction for assaulting a 15-year-old boy. He won this Red Wall seats from Labour at the last election. It’s the 36th most marginal Conservative-Labour contest: precisely the kind of seat that will decide whether the Tories can remain in office.

If Conservatives retain the seats in the coming by-election, then this will be a highly significant victory. If Johnson is still Prime Minister, he will feel he is invincible, at least for the moment. A narrow Labour victory would be a setback, but not necessarily fatal.

A big Labour victory would be more troubling. The Tory MPs who will decide his future may shrug this off as a routine mid-term setback. But, again, the Tories would be relying on history repeating itself, with a big swing back to the Government as the next general election approaches.

It might turn out like that: but personally, I wouldn’t bet the house on it. An electorate that defies the laws of history might prove more fatal to the Tories than Johnson defying the laws of lockdown.

This analysis first appeared in The New European