The greatest threat to Boris's legacy

28 February 2021

6:31 PM

28 February 2021

6:31 PM

The government is starting to have an opinion poll problem, but it has nothing to do with any great threat from Keir Starmer or the Labour party. While the Tory ratings have gone from high to low 40s and Boris Johnson is not as extraordinarily popular as he was in January last year before the advent of the first dry cough of coronavirus, that’s not the issue of concern at all.

On the contrary, the problem is that the Prime Minister may be getting addicted to favourable ratings and increasingly unwilling to put them in jeopardy by taking difficult or unpopular decisions. The latest evidence for this view came in his statement to the Commons last Monday about the roadmap back to normality post-Covid, when he engaged in a so self-conscious an act of triangulation as to be reminiscent of Tony Blair.

‘I know there will be many people who will be worried that we are being too ambitious… and of course there will be others who believe that we could go faster,’ Johnson told MPs.

And you know what? He was bang on in that assessment. The first snap poll of public reaction to the snail-pace timetable for leaving lockdown that he had set out proved it. YouGov found that 26 per cent of respondents thought he was going too fast, 16 per cent too slowly and a mighty 46 per cent at about right speed.

Among December 2019 Tory voters the result was even more pleasing for Downing Street. Some 18 per cent said too fast, 20 per cent said too slow and 54 per cent at the right speed. So Johnson was perfectly positioned within his own electoral coalition — Captain Sensible to Starmer’s Captain Hindsight.

Given the emphasis Johnson’s operation places on private polling, focus groups and other opinion research we should be unsurprised by this. Indeed our suspicion must be that the policy he set out was crafted with the primary intention of keeping in lock step with the public mood.

It’s all looking very good for Boris on the wider polling front too. All of the latest rounds of party standing polls put the Tories securely in the lead. Here are those scores on the doors in full: Kantar Con 40, Lab 33; Redfield Wilton Con 43, Lab 37; Savanta ComRes Con 40, Lab 38; YouGov Con 40, Lab 37; Opinium Con 42, Lab 37; Survation Con 39, Lab 33.

The latest YouGov monthly tracker on the performance of the two main party leaders shows that Johnson has recovered from a net rating of -25 in October to -11 now. By contrast, Starmer has slumped from +13 to -6 in the same period. And most polls now show Johnson to have a clear lead when people are asked which of the two men would make a better prime minister.

Given that the British public has experienced a year of 122,000 Covid fatalities — by far the highest death toll in Europe — and of Brexit-related turmoil too, the inability of Labour to get its nose in front or even reach level pegging is telling.

If we further reflect that Johnson will go into the next election with around 160 seats more than Starmer and with favourable boundary changes enacted, it is clear that his stocks of political capital are sky high.

But is this Prime Minister, sitting atop a landslide majority and facing a broken-backed opposition leader whom he prods around at PMQs as if he were wounded prey, going to invest that capital in difficult ventures?

Welfare policy appears to have been contracted out to the footballer Marcus Rashford, fiscal policy has become a matter of being delivered from temptation but just not yet, teachers are to be permitted to invent exam grades for their own pupils and a whole array of other vested interests are making increasingly outlandish demands of the public purse.

It seems that Johnson is the latest PM to fall victim to the idea of governing as a permanent campaign in which the main goal is to come out on top in each day’s media air war. At the end of his first landslide term, Blair was left feeling rueful that he hadn’t achieved more, noting in his memoirs of the onset of his second term: ‘My impatience with the scale and ambition of our reform was now carved in granite. I was going to do it, come hell or high water.’

It was a trap that Lady Thatcher never fell into. Even when trailing badly to Michael Foot in 1980 and 1981 and facing cabinet mutinies, she refused to abandon her monetarist economic strategy.

Later in her premiership, she told one interviewer: ‘You know, if you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything, wouldn’t you, at any time? And you would achieve nothing.’

This Johnson term will never be regarded as an attainment-free zone precisely because of the Brexit logjam having been broken and the extraordinarily choppy waters of Covid being navigated with a world-beating performance on vaccination likely to linger longest in the public’s mind.

But a prime minister who is said to find being disliked hard to deal with would be deemed to have squandered a rare opportunity if he left it at that.

Difficult issues must be grasped without making cross-party support a pre-condition. Reforming social care for the elderly is an obvious example and one that Blair shied away from. Perhaps it will require a national insurance surcharge on the over-50s to create a secure new funding stream? If Johnson believes that to be the right course then he should do it, nevermind that he will be raiding the pockets of a large part of his core vote.

Few prime ministers are granted so great a degree of dominance as Johnson now possesses. Nobody should ever be able to say of him that it felt like he was in office but not in power.

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