Boris Johnson's popularity problem

3 August 2021

7:50 AM

3 August 2021

7:50 AM

The Westminster rumour mill is in overdrive today on the question of whether Rishi Sunak will be Boris Johnson’s successor in No. 10. It’s not that there’s a job vacancy. Instead, the first ConservativeHome poll on who Tory members would like to be the party’s next leader has put Sunak out on top, with International Trade secretary Liz Truss in second and Cabinet Office minister Penny Mordaunt a close third. The poll isn’t exactly helpful timing for the Chancellor. Given the weekend papers were filled with stories of Sunak calling on Johnson to relax travel rules, anything that fuels talk of leadership manoeuvres is problematic for No. 11.

However, the poll that ought to worry the Prime Minister most doesn’t relate to who will eventually replace him. Instead, it’s the website’s ‘Cabinet League Table’ in which Johnson has dropped 36 points to a net satisfaction rating of three points. Below Johnson on the league table are Robert Jenrick, Amanda Milling and Gavin Williamson. Johnson’s score is his third-lowest since March 2020 and comes as the gap between the Tories and Labour appears to be narrowing in a series of national polls.

The most popular theory among Tory MPs is that the vaccine bounce brought by the successful jab rollout is over and normal politics is returning. There had been a hope in government that rather than mark the end of the bounce, so-called ‘freedom day’ would be the peak. Instead, the lifting of all restrictions has brought with it new problems for Johnson as both MPs and party supporters learn that the promised ‘freedom’ isn’t so free after all. Foreign travel is an area where this is particularly acute — just look at how much certain ministers and Tory backbenchers are lobbying No. 10 for an easing of travel rules.

As for the Prime Minister’s personal ratings, the self-isolation incident — which saw Johnson and Sunak attempt to avoid mandatory quarantine by taking part in a pilot scheme — proved a painful unforced error. While Sunak has come out less damaged over the row, it served to annoy many in Johnson’s own party and lead to questions over the Prime Minister’s judgment.

When it comes to the Tory base, Johnson’s announcement that vaccine passports will be introduced for certain settings in the spring has landed badly with the grassroots. While many MPs believe it is a bluff — aimed at motivating people to get vaccinated rather than something that will definitely be brought in — it is viewed as reckless nonetheless. Even cabinet members can barely hide their unhappiness at the change in tack. Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg has described enforcing such certification as ‘not a British way to behave’.

The issue for Johnson is that in the past there were other figures who could be blamed for being for restrictions or holding the Prime Minister back. First Dominic Cummings and later Matt Hancock, who earned a reputation as the chief dove in cabinet. But with both now gone, Johnson is having to wear more responsibility for each Covid decision.

The hope among Johnson allies is that the mood will improve as Covid cases seemingly continue their downward trend and the date by which the double-vaccinated no longer have to self isolate is coming up the track. But as spending rows gather pace on issues like social care, MPs see red over the National Food Strategy and talk increases of a U-turn on planning reform, Johnson is coming under pressure to remind his base that he is still the man they voted for.

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