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Why are the Conservatives still leading in the polls?

05 August 2020

By Tim Le Couilliard, Newgate Public Affairs

Socially, much has changed in the last nine months since the landslide 2019 General Election, but have things really changed politically? You won’t need reminding that the Conservatives were elected on a manifesto of “Getting Brexit Done” (amongst other things), culminating in a huge 365 seats and a majority of 80. All was going swimmingly for Boris Johnson, finally Prime Minister, after many, many, years of aspiration. 

Then, of course, there was Covid-19. Whilst many crises see voters “rally around the flag”, with the incumbent Government’s popularity often experiencing a boost, this pandemic has felt different. Sometimes, crises are used as a diversionary tactic by governments specifically to encourage an election rally (although this would never be admitted to of course). No one can accuse any government, however, of deliberately benefiting from this pandemic; and perhaps that is where this crisis differs from many others. 

In the UK, when papers such as The Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph openly lead with criticism of a Tory government, you have to wonder what is going wrong. But this isn’t the true story, or at least not what the numbers say. Published this week is a new poll out by Survation, which has found that the Conservatives still enjoy a nine-point lead ahead of Labour. If there was to be an election tomorrow, the polls suggest that the Conservatives would win 44% of the vote, Labour 35%, Liberal Democrats 8%, and the other parties sharing the remaining 13%. Bear in mind, back in December 2019, the Conservatives won 43.5% and Labour 32%; how is it that the Conservatives have maintained their standing?

It does not appear to be down to the popularities of the respective leaders. The same Survation poll found Johnson’s net favourability rating to be 0, with the population split exactly between favourable and unfavourable (43%/43%). Starmer, on the other hand, has a positive favourability of 9% (37%/28%), proving to be both less liked, and less disliked, than the Conservative leader. Perhaps it has been too early for Starmer to convert his personal relative favourability into that of his parties’, but it certainly hasn’t come to fruition yet. It is fair to say that there are a number of legacy issues still to tackle for the Labour party, with ongoing issues surrounding antisemitism, losing the debate on Brexit, and also a disastrous collapse in the Red-Wall. Or perhaps, is he just not Prime Ministerial enough to carry his party into government – the same survey ranking Johnson seven points ahead of Starmer in the “Best Prime Minister” category (although YouGov found, when asking the same question, a far smaller gap of two points). 

Beyond leaders, the Government, rightly or wrongly, has received plenty of criticism during this pandemic, particularly over communications, timing and the actions taken. According to another survey, this time YouGov, however, Britons are more likely to hold the public responsible if the UK was to suffer a second wave, rather than the Government (52%/31%). This is in stark contrast to other findings that show the Government’s performance favourability rating to be - 7%, and yet, the public will still consider themselves more culpable for a second wave than the government. 

The public seem inclined to give the Government benefit of the doubt on other matters too, with only 56% of Britons confident in the scientific advice the Government is being given by advisers. I say ‘only’, as in April this year, that figure sat at 71%. Could it be that the public is giving more leniency to the Government as this virus goes on?

Still, there isn’t set to be a General Election in Britain until 2024, so this is arguably all immaterial. That being said, the current Downing Street occupants are ones that takes the view of the British public very seriously with a notoriously strong polling operation. Perhaps, the Johnson administration will be glad that they, unlike their American counterparts, don’t have an election this year. Although the polls are holding up, it will be a concern for any governing party how voters will turn up to vote once the Covid-19 dust has settled.