By Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC
do we know about Boris Johnson? That he is the most popular politician in the
country. That he raises the spirits in gloomy times. That he is a Tory who was
elected, and then re-elected, in a predominantly Labour city. And that some
think the magic that helped ensure his two personal victories would do the same
for his party if, one day, he led it.
is not a ridiculous idea. But in politics, things are seldom as straightforward
as that. I decided to look further into the proposition that Boris is the
answer. What is the nature of his appeal, and how far does it stretch beyond
London? What do people think he believes, and does it matter? Does being a successful
Mayor qualify him to lead a country? Would he boost his party’s popularity, or
would it erode his own? What kind of voters are the most eager to see him in
Downing Street, and who is more doubtful? And if Boris is the answer, what
exactly is the question?
poll of 8,000 people, together with focus groups in Eastleigh, Taunton,
Huntingdon, Warrington and Leeds, showed that Boris’s popularity is by no means
confined to the capital. He was thought more likely than any other senior
politician to be strong, likeable, a “people person”, up to the job, a winner,
and someone who gets things done.
in all regions apart from Scotland thought him “different from most
politicians, and in a good way”. We asked for the first word or phrase that
came into people’s minds when they thought of Boris; the collected answers
largely paint a picture of fondness and sometimes even admiration that is
unique for a contemporary politician.
is also the second most recognised politician in Britain, after the Prime
Minister. In a world where only 72 per cent can correctly identify a picture of Nick
Clegg (most often confusing him with George Osborne), 62 per cent can accurately name
an image of the Chancellor (most often confusing him with Ed Miliband), 64 per cent
correctly name a photo of William Hague (most often confusing him with Iain
Duncan Smith, and sometimes with Ross Kemp), 55 per cent can put the right name to
Theresa May (most often confusing her with Harriet Harman), and only one in ten
can correctly identify Philip Hammond (most often muddling him up with Jeremy
Hunt, and sometimes with Julian Assange), it is quite something that Boris
achieves recognition above 90 per cent.
thirds of voters, including majorities of all parties’ supporters, thought
Boris was doing well as Mayor of London. But while just over half in our poll
thought being Mayor was a serious job and that Boris had shown he could take on
real responsibility, 42 per cent thought the job was “mainly about generating publicity
for the city rather than running anything”. People in the groups often referred
to him as the Lord Mayor, and many assumed the role was mainly ceremonial or
ambassadorial; though they thought he did a brilliant job of promoting the
city, many were surprised to learn he had executive authority in important
areas like transport and policing.
knew about Boris’s prosperous background but this hardly ever mattered to
people; wherever he came from, he seemed be in touch and down to earth. People
often remarked that he regularly managed to get himself into trouble, though
few could recall specific incidents. Reminding them helped prove that Boris is
given the benefit of the doubt to an extent that other politicians can only
dream of. While people will reflexively question the motives and intentions of
MPs for saying and doing the most straightforward things, most of our
participants went out of their way to put a generous interpretation on the most
controversial episodes in Boris’s career. Though they often knew he led a
colourful private life, they strongly agreed with him that this was none of
the impression that he speaks his mind, most people were at a loss to say where
he stood politically, either in general or on any particular issue. If pushed
to guess, people usually said he probably wanted a tougher immigration policy
and was in favour of gay marriage, but they were unsure about his views on
Europe: in the poll, 30 per cent said they thought he wanted to stay in the EU, 27 per cent
thought he wanted to leave, and the rest didn’t know. Similarly, though people
often said he refused to toe the party line, nobody could remember an instance
of him disagreeing with David Cameron or the government.
the focus groups, the prospect of Boris one day becoming Prime Minister was
usually raised by participants themselves; it was to them an obvious part of
any conversation about him. When asked who would make the best PM, each of the
three party leaders or Boris, David Cameron came out narrowly ahead on 33 per cent, two
points ahead of Ed Miliband, four points ahead of Boris and 26 points ahead of
Clegg. Among Conservatives, Cameron was the clear winner over Boris, by 81 per cent to
18 per cent. UKIP supporters were the only group among whom Boris was the favourite.
we asked about how they would handle different aspects of the job, Boris beat
Cameron only on “understanding ordinary people” (and Miliband beat them both).
Cameron was the clear leader when it came to representing Britain
internationally, making the right decisions even when they are unpopular,
leading a team and doing the job overall. There was less to choose between the
three on “having a clear idea of what they want to achieve”, presumably more
because it seemed equally untrue of them than equally true.
just over a third of voters overall, including around half of Conservative and
UKIP supporters, said in the poll that Boris would be “capable of running the
country as Prime Minister”. As the groups helped to show, this hides a more
nuanced set of thoughts. For some it was conceivable that he could do the job
as the Boris they thought they knew, doing the “showbiz” while others conducted
the serious business. They felt this would carry the potential for disastrous
or at least hilarious consequences, which is why many felt the Conservative
Party would never take the risk of installing him as leader. The more prevalent
view was that in Downing Street Boris would have to tone down his approach, and
would have more limited scope to say what he thought – in which case he would
lose much of what appealed to people about him in the first place.
whether they would be more or less likely to vote Conservative if Boris were
leader, half said it would make no difference; just under a quarter said it
would make them more likely. UKIP supporters were the most inclined to say they
would be more likely to vote Tory with Boris in charge. Lib Dem voters were
equally divided as to whether he would make them more or less likely to vote
Conservative, and more Labour voters said he would reduce the chances of them
voting Tory than that he would raise them. UKIP voters and those aged 18 to 24
were the only groups among whom a majority thought the Conservative Party would
be more likely to win a general election if Boris led it.
overlap between UKIP-inclined voters and those who most strongly back the idea
of Boris as Prime Minister is surely no coincidence. The fact that Boris has
been among the most outspoken supporters of immigration and gay marriage shows
that this is nothing whatsoever to do with policy. Instead it shows that people’s
stated desire to see him in Number 10 says less about Boris himself than it
says about them, and crucially their own view of politics and political
for whom politics is the hard grind of sorting out difficult problems most
value competence and statesmanship and want to be able to picture their leaders
in the company of Obama and Merkel. (That is not to say Boris lacks these
qualities, rather that they are not the things they most closely associate with
him). Existing Conservative supporters largely fall into this group; they have
after all signed up to the drudgery of deficit reduction. This helps explain
why, adore Boris though they do, they much prefer the idea of Cameron as Prime
Minister, and fewer of them than average think the party would be more likely
to win an election with Boris as leader.
idea of Prime Minister Boris appeals most to those who have the most jaded view
of what politics can achieve for the country and themselves. Though they often
think Boris is cleverer and more competent than he is sometimes given credit
for, this is beside the point. It is the antithesis of the idea that serious
times call for serious people; rather, in an age when our problems seem beyond
the capacity of governments to solve, we might as well have a leader who cheers
us all up.
electoral terms, the question is whether Boris as leader would win for the
Conservatives voters from Labour and the Lib Dems, and those who have moved to
UKIP or stopped voting altogether. For those on the fringe, one of the big
attractions of Boris (as of UKIP) is that he is ‘none of the above’: this lot
are no good; if only we could put someone else in charge. Once there, though,
would Boris make mainstream politics attractive to those who have rejected it?
More likely, the slog and compromise of it all would dull for them the
Borissian lustre. As Mayor he can claim the credit for some real achievements,
while the fact that times are hard is not his responsibility. But in
government, or when asking people to put him in government, he would find the
blame for all sorts of things laid at his door. The benefit of the doubt would
be harder to come by.
his London campaigns Boris undeniably attracted voters who usually support
other parties. As our research shows, this would be less likely to work in a
general election. Otherwise Labour and Lib Dem supporting voters backed Boris
as Mayor on a personal mandate and a personal manifesto; for many, the fact
that he was a Tory was incidental. Asking them to vote for a Conservative
government, inhabited by the Conservative Party and implementing Conservative
policies but with Boris at the helm, would be a rather different proposition.
The uncommitted and uninterested, meanwhile, would give him a hearing, but
Boris alone would not be a good enough reason for them to vote Tory.
is no doubt that Boris is a great asset to his party, and I think his time as
Mayor has shown that he is up to the demands of executive office. But
ultimately, were it to come to pass, the fact of having Boris as leader would
not make the things that stop people voting Tory go away, and it would be a
gamble to assume he would trump them. The question “are you serious?” would not
just be one the voters asked of Boris: it would demand an answer of a party
that thought an entertaining new leader would be enough by itself to win them
Full data tables are available at LordAshcroftPolls.com