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Today’s Opinium poll for the Observer is grim reading for Boris Johnson and his party. Johnson’s personal approvals fall below the worst figures ever recorded by Theresa May; and his party sinks to its worst vote share since the general election, 10 points behind Labour. Majorities of practically every political and demographic group believe Johnson and his colleagues have broken the rules and lied about it, and say Johnson should resign.
Until recently, the wobbly wing of the Conservative coalition looked to be better off Remainers in the South of England. Yet today’s poll adds to growing evidence that the “partygate” scandal is jeopardising the party’s support from “red wall” Leavers too. Such voters have long felt disaffected from and distrustful of a political class they felt ignored their concerns and lived by its own rules. The resentments once mobilised against the EU by the promise to “Take Back Control” now have a new target – an out of touch Downing Street team who partied while the Queen mourned.
Johnson himself has shifted from the party’s biggest asset, with a Brexit-fuelled appeal separate to the Conservative brand to its biggest liability, as the revelations of Downing Street revelry in lockdown render him personally toxic with the same voters. The Conservatives may now be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Sticking with Johnson risks further contaminating the party brand if the scandals continue and voter fury intensifies. Party veterans with memories of the 1990s will recall how hard renewal can become once their party is toxic. Yet replacing Johnson brings its own risks, as none of the front runners for the succession looks likely to replicate his unique appeal with voters otherwise suspicious of the Conservatives.
The geography of the electoral battlefield intensifies this dilemma. The voters who switched to the Conservatives in 2019 were clustered in the crucial swing seats, while Labour’s post-Brexit base of young graduates and ethnic minorities was concentrated in seats the party already held. The current scandal-driven collapse could throw the same dynamic into reverse as the voters most angered by shameless rule breaking and barely credible excuse-making flock together in the battleground seats likely to decide the next election.
Yet there is little comfort for Johnson’s party in the more traditional Tory strongholds either. The Conservatives are losing even more ground among the better-off, Remain-leaning voters who formed the pre-Brexit base of the party, and whose suspicions of Johnson were only over-ridden in 2019 by fear of a Corbyn government. A slump in both new and old heartlands would be a dire scenario indeed, but one which must be taken seriously in an era where partisan loyalties are weak and voters more volatile than ever.
Mid-term blues are common. The Conservatives have trailed Labour badly before only to rebound at election time. But the comeback wins in 2015 and 2019 were both fuelled by recruiting nationalist Eurosceptics from Nigel Farage, and by exploiting voter distrust of unpopular Labour opponents. There is no Farage party to squeeze today, and Keir Starmer’s personal ratings, though mediocre, are better than his predecessor and improving. The Conservatives’ hopes may now rest on whether voters’ longstanding reservations about Labour outweigh their growing anger at a prime minister now widely seen as a liar and a law-breaker unfit for office. A slender reed indeed.
Robert Ford is professor of political science at Manchester University.