Two weeks ago, polls showed the British public favoured tough sanctions on Russia. Indeed, they favoured tougher sanctions than the government was then implementing. But they also opposed direct involvement in the Ukrainian conflict. They expected the war to affect them personally and for life to become more difficult. There was also no discernible impact on electoral politics. How has opinion moved since then?
YouGov’s excellent conflict polling shows people appear more resigned to the war affecting their own lives. Very large majorities think energy and food prices will rise and a majority thinks taxes will rise too. Shockingly, a significant minority – 21% – even believes a nuclear attack is likely (although the gender gap here is remarkable, with women thinking an atomic strike is much more probable). Separately, consumer confidence is dropping and there is evidence the public are becoming unhappy and anxious.
It’s hard to say but attitudes on sanctions seem to be hardening. By 67% to 10%, people don’t believe Western countries are doing enough – via sanctions, supplying weapons, and other means – to stop Russia winning the war. Admittedly, this is a slightly different question than “do you support sanctions?”, but there nonetheless remains scepticism about anything that might drag NATO countries into direct confrontation with Russia. By 39% to 28%, people oppose trying to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, with the rest unsure.
Presumably, as people have watched horrifying pictures of refugees fleeing their homes, threatened by death or injury as they do, the number of British people agreeing we should set up a scheme to resettle Ukrainian refugees has risen. Whereas it was 63% a fortnight ago, it is 75% now. Similarly, the number of refugees people think Britain should accept has risen. Two weeks ago, just 15% said we should settle a few hundreds of thousands (with most saying we should accept fewer): it has now reached 25%.
Unsurprisingly, and of a piece with practically every recent poll, Ipsos-Mori have the public divided on how the Government has handled the crisis. 36% say the Government has done a good job, compared to 26% who say it has done badly (with 31% saying neither). There are similar numbers for Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis.
As trivial as this might seem against the enormity of the tragedy in Ukraine, this does provide an opportunity to deal with the distasteful question of the war’s impact on electoral politics. Nobody said analysing public opinion was glamorous.
Practically all the polls were heading in the wrong direction for the Government a few weeks ago. Although the picture is complex and changing, the bottom line appears to be that the crisis has halted the slide in the Government’s and the PM’s ratings.
Caveated by the fact it is too early to say whether this is a meaningful trend, we can see the following: Government approval ratings and the PM’s ratings are no longer falling. Alongside this, the gap between Johnson and Starmer on who would make the best PM and the gap between the Conservatives and Labour on headline voting intention has been narrowing (although the last poll showed a minor increase in Labour’s lead, which might be a blip).
On the publication of new polling, Ipsos-Mori made a similar point, pointing out Boris Johnson’s personal ratings have risen to “pre partygate levels”, along with his scores on various personality traits. Compared to February, Johnson achieves increases across being ‘good in a crisis’ (+4pts), a ‘strong leader’ (+4pts), a ‘capable leader’ (+5pts), putting country first (+6pts), paying attention to detail (+4pts) and being a ‘Prime Minister I am proud of’ (+4 pts).” (Interestingly, Redfield & Wilton show the opposite).
What can we conclude from all this? Three things stand out.
Firstly, on the crisis specifically, the public are settling into a firm position of: sanctions yes, direct conflict no. The fact there were such high numbers saying “don’t know” on the issue of the no-fly zone might imply an increasing understanding of the dangers of escalating our military presence. Two weeks ago, while people were cautious about direct involvement, they appeared to have no real sense of the limits of what the Russians might tolerate. After Putin’s effective nuclear threat, people are much more cautious about poking the bear.
Secondly, politically-speaking, the Government and the PM are thought to be handling this well. It’s not credible to imagine the crisis would turn politics on its head; the discontent expressed in the Government’s and the PM’s ratings this winter was so dramatic that a full recovery was never going to happen. The fact the ratings slide has stopped implies significant public approval.
Whether this trend continues is hard to say. Currently, it seems likely that they will have closed the gap for the medium-term. As I have said previously, while I doubt the PM can turn things round, there is a path.
Thirdly, on issues, the public might no longer so intensely blame the Government for a decline in living standards. We’re miles away from being able to say for sure, but as the public are saying very clearly that they expect energy and food costs to rise, and given their support for sanctions, it’s possible they will conclude that global events and trends are to blame – and not the Government.
Had the crisis not happened, the Government would not unreasonably have argued rising costs were a global phenomenon post-Covid. But it’s hard to imagine this would have cut through. This conflict will now make people listen to this point more carefully. We’ll see where this goes, but, if the view that the squeeze is unavoidable takes hold, it will massively strengthen the Government’s hand. Incidentally, it will also do Rishi Sunak’s personal ambitions no harm.