In one sense, opinion polls measuring party ratings tell us nothing much. The next election isn’t due until May 2 2024 (although if the Fixed Terms Parliament Act is repealed, as seems likely given the Government’s majority, a poll on a different date can’t be ruled out).
In another, they are as good a snapshot of public opinion, when it comes to parties and leaders, as one is likely to get. And it’s worth remembering that while pollsters have sometimes got general elections “wrong” – that’s to say, their final polls have sometimes been out of line with the actual result – this was not true of them at the last election, when many had quite a good outing.
Politico’s Poll of Polls closed last year with the Conservative rating exactly where it was two years ago: 39 per cent. That share looks as though it’s made up by the same broad coalition of voters who gave Theresa May 42 per cent of the vote in the 2017 general election.
That share began to fall steadily from early March of that year – at about the time when the then Prime Minister was preparing for the second meaningful vote on her version of the Withdrawal Agreement. It hit 20 per cent on May 29, shortly after the European elections of May 23, in which the Conservatives won only four seats and some nine per cent of the vote.
The Tory rating began to move upwards from about June 19, the day before the final ballot in the Parliamentary stage of the leadership election. Boris Johnson took it from 28 per cent when elected leader on July 25 to 44 per cent in last year’s general election.
It then rose to a peak of 51 per cent last March, which must be read in as a demonstration of national solidarity in the early days of the pandemic, before falling quickly to about 43 per cent last June, from which it has declined very gradually. These are vertiginous ups and downs.
There is excitement in the papers today about an MRP exercise finding the two main parties more or less even, which is in line with the poll of polls, and we wait to see what happens next.
One reading of both the polls and the last election result is that since the EU referendum, a coalition of blueish-and-purpleish voters has kept the Conservative share steady at about 40 per cent (except when May alienated both the UKIP-type end of it and a mass of usual Tory voters).
It may be that with a Brexit trade agreement now in place as well as a Withdrawal Agreement, there is a shift in voting patterns from culture to economics – especially when the Covid bills start to come in rapidly…
…Or maybe not, at least in Scotland. “Yes” gained a lead over “No” in April, a turnaround that had at least as much to do with Covid-19 as with Brexit, if the timing is any guide.