In June 2019, I analysed Boris Johnson’s polling numbers in detail in this column. You can read it here.
Given we regularly hear Johnson is irrevocably damaged amongst voters, it is helpful to repeat the exercise. So, what do the polls show? With the voters, is it all over?
Should he resign?
Starting with the most current question: should the PM resign? In the middle of January, YouGov showed by 64 per cent to 20 per cent people thought Johnson should resign. Only the scale of this result is important; like favourability, this is a question which invites partisanship and prime ministers are often in negative territory.
YouGov ran this question from his earliest days as PM, showing more people wanted him to remain as PM until the summer of 2021, when the numbers changed and where they have stayed ever since. Those identifying as Conservative changed their mind – saying he should resign – in January; working-class voters changed their mind in November.
A useful reality check, however: not everyone thinks he’s doing a bad job. In January, YouGov published a poll of party members showing they thought he should stay by 59-34; by 61-38 members said he was doing a good job as PM.
Performance as PM
On the straight question about performance: on January 13, YouGov showed people thought Johnson was doing badly rather than well as PM by 73-22. (Again, only the scale of the result is important.) He slipped into negative territory with those identifying as Conservative in December and in January he was in negative territory by 50-46.
At the end of January, Ipsos-Mori showed people were dissatisfied rather than satisfied at Johnson’s performance by 70-24. In early February, Deltapoll showed the public thought Johnson was doing badly by 68-29.
Johnson v Starmer
Although it’s all relative, Johnson’s numbers look better when he is compared directly with Keir Starmer. Deltapoll had Johnson and Starmer effectively tied on who would make the best PM at the start of this month (36-35 in favour of Starmer).
Other polls show a larger Starmer lead. Currently, YouGov’s tracker shows more people say Starmer would make a better PM than Johnson by 35-25 (the numbers saying “don’t know” are very high). Ipsos-Mori’s “Political Monitor” at the end of January put Starmer ahead on who would make the most capable PM by 49-31.
The nature of these results suggest Starmer’s lead reflects the deterioration in Johnson’s position, rather than people coming round to Starmer: Johnson had a consistent lead for a long period, until November 2021 when things started to go badly for Johnson and Starmer’s own favourability ratings are also in negative territory (in January, he was viewed unfavourably by 52-33; Deltapoll has a negative rating for Starmer but it’s smaller).
Ipsos-Mori’s recent February “UK Political Pulse” research compared Johnson and Starmer on a range of attributes, asking whether particular attributes “applied” to either. Johnson scored positively on “he has a lot of personality”, and negatively on everything else – particularly on honesty, attention to detail, whether he is in touch with ordinary people, and whether puts the needs of the country first. Starmer scored positively on “understands the problems facing Britain”, on capability, and whether he puts the needs of the country first.
Johnson v Sunak
YouGov’s members’ poll in January revealed that 46 per cent of members think Rishi Sunak would make a better PM than Johnson, compared to 16 per cent who think he would be worse and 30 per cent who think he would be much the same.
Arguably this is encouraging for Johnson: 46 per cent think Sunak would be better, while 46 per cent think Sunak would be the same or worse. For Liz Truss, the figures were 39/ 22/ 27 per cent respectively.
Ipsos Mori’s UK Political Pulse also compared Johnson to Sunak on a list of possible attributes. Sunak outperformed Johnson almost across the board (Johnson scored positively on personality, unlike Sunak). Sunak performed particularly positively on attention to detail, understands the problems facing Britain and good in a crisis. He performed badly on “in touch with ordinary people” and polled disappointingly on strength and capability.
The same Deltapoll results that gave Johnson a negative rating on job performance of -39 gave Sunak a positive rating of +21. It appears that a close link with Sunak drags Johnson up: Deltapoll had a particularly interesting question on whether people thought Johnson & Sunak or Starmer & Rachel Reeves would be better for the economy; it was essentially a dead heat, with people choosing Johnson and Sunak by 39-38.
Johnson v his predecessors
A number of pollsters have looked at Johnson’s ratings compared to previously unpopular prime ministers. At the end of January, Ipsos-Mori showed his ratings on satisfaction as PM were now -46, which, they wrote, roughly matched Theresa May’s negative ratings, but were not as bad as John Major’s in August 1994 (-59). They are similar to Tony Blair at his least popular and to Gordon Brown’s in 2008/09.
Competence, decisiveness, strength
YouGov have been running a tracker on perceptions of his competence since he became PM. His numbers began climbing from walking into No 10 and after prorogation and his December 2019 election win climbed into positive territory for the first time – ie more people viewed him as competent than incompetent (43-41).
His competence numbers peaked in the early days of the pandemic (55-31), but headed back into negative territory in June 2020. They have been there ever since, although perceptions of incompetence grew sharply last summer and the last figures, for the end of December, showed the public viewed him as incompetent by 64-22. YouGov’s tracker on “decisiveness” shows a similar pattern: his positive numbers climbed sharply in the early days and he sustained positive figures in the early days on the pandemic.
They then fell and sharply deteriorated from the autumn of 2020. As of the end of December they stood as 71-16 negative-positive. And the “strength” tracker is also similar, although perceptions of strength held up longer. As of December they stood at 59-23 weak-strong.
YouGov’s tracker on “likeability” has generally had Johnson in positive territory and his numbers were pretty consistent. In December 2021, he hit negative territory for the first time since his early days (51-36 dislikeable-likeable). YouGov’s tracker on “trustworthiness” has always had him in negative territory, but in December this reached 69-15.
What can we conclude from all this?
First, that Johnson is still viable with the public if he is constantly compared to Starmer as the alternative. Starmer has a lead, but Johnson’s negatives aren’t as serious when a choice between the two is forced.
Second, that a close association to Sunak will drag him up by essentially having Sunak fill in his gaps. Against the backdrop of a weak economy, forcing a choice between Johnson and Sunak and Starmer and Reeves looks fruitful.
However, it’s hard to know whether the benefits of such an approach could last. Not only would this effectively launch Starmer and Reeves amongst many voters – who might be reassured at what they see (they’re clearly getting their act together and articulating increasingly sensible positions) – but it might also further raise Sunak’s profile and make people (particularly Conservatives) ask whether it might be better if the Chancellor was the one in No 10.
Two other conclusions come to mind. That, as a Prime Minister about to enter a set of serious crises (Russia, most obviously), Johnson has the ability to boost his numbers on competence, decisiveness and strength.
And that if there’s one thing the PM is good at, it’s making people like him; this is his superpower.
In summary, while it’s difficult to say he’s not finished with the public, and while there is at least one big event that could just end it all overnight, there is at least a pathway for his near-term survival.