The big mistake everyone is making about Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson delivers a speech at the 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, Sept. 6, 2022. (Photo by Li Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson is considering an attempt to become prime minister, just weeks after he was ousted in disgrace (Yahoo News UK)

When Liz Truss brought her brief and chaotic time as prime minister to a close, the question of who should lead the Conservative party – and the country – was posed for the third time in a year.

Rishi Sunak, Truss’s previous leadership rival, swiftly emerged as a possible candidate, as did Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt.

Soon, another name began to dominate the discussion: Boris Johnson.

While he is yet to publicly confirm his intention to run, dozens of MPs have gone on the record to back him. Energy minister Jacob Rees-Mogg went as far as to tweet his support with the hashtag “BorisOrBust”.

This is despite Johnson being turfed out in disgrace just weeks before after his ministers resigned en masse, citing the Partygate scandal and Johnson’s bungled handling of a sexual misconduct complaint against MP Chris Pincher among their reasons.

According to The Telegraph, Johnson has launched a charm offensive among supportive backbenchers, telling them he is the only candidate who can save the Tory party from election decimation as they lag in the polls by record margins.

Outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks toward his wife Carrie Johnson and well-wishers as they leave Downing Street, London. Mr Johnson will now travel to Balmoral for an audience with Queen Elizabeth II to formally resign as Prime Minister. Picture date: Tuesday September 6, 2022.
Boris Johnson walks away from the lectern outside 10 Downing Street after resigning as prime minister (PA Images)

Conservative MPs tempted by the former PM’s pitch could do with remembering one crucial factor – Boris Johnson has never been as popular as they think, particularly as prime minister.

Even when he first took office – a time when the public tend to give new PMs the benefit of the doubt, Johnson’s favourability ratings were lukewarm at best.

Boris Johnson's approval ratings when he took office, compared to Theresa May's (Yahoo News UK/Flourish)
Boris Johnson's approval ratings when he took office, compared to Theresa May's (Yahoo News UK/Flourish)

Compared to his predecessor Theresa May, Johnson was significantly less well liked, with 31% of voters reporting a favourable opinion of him, compared to 48% for May.

During his tenure in No 10, Johnson had positive ratings for just a few months.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 03: Former British Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip May arrive for the National Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul's Cathedral on June 3, 2022 in London, England. The Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II is being celebrated from June 2 to June 5, 2022, in the UK and Commonwealth to mark the 70th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II on 6 February 1952. (Photo by Daniel Leal - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Theresa May was considerably more popular than Boris Johnson when she took over as prime minister (Getty Images)

The ratings bounce enjoyed by most new leaders didn't immediately materialise, and it was only when the COVID pandemic and first lockdown gripped the UK that his figures went into the green.

The public gave Johnson their backing when he himself was hospitalised with COVID, and his net approval rating reached a high of 29% in April 2020.

Boris Johnson had negative favourability ratings throughout most of his time as prime minister (Yahoo News UK/Flourish)
Boris Johnson had negative favourability ratings throughout most of his time as prime minister (Yahoo News UK/Flourish)

The popularity didn't last, however, and his ratings soon began to tumble below zero.

In January 2022, his ratings dropped further into the negative than they ever did for May, falling to -52% compared to her low of -49%. At his lowest ebb, David Cameron's approval ratings never reached beneath -40%.

Johnson can perhaps take some comfort from the fact that his successor managed to eclipse his unpopularity during her short-lived stint as PM – Truss's net favourability rating dropped to a record low of -70% before she stood down.

Of course, Johnson's supporters rightly point out that he pulled off the unusual feat of securing a strapping majority for a party that had been in power for two terms already when he won the general election in 2019.

Jeremy Corbyn near Downing Street in central London, at The People's Assembly Against Austerity protest to highlight those suffering hardship from the cost of living crisis due to the rise in fuel costs, food prices inflation and low pay. Picture date: Saturday April 2, 2022.
Boris Johnson beat Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party in the 2019 general election in a landslide victory (Getty Images)

He defeated Jeremy Corbyn's Labour by a landslide, securing a majority of 80 seats.

This, experts argue, should be put down to Corbyn's intense unpopularity more than Johnson's personal merits.

As Chris Curtis, head of political polling at Opinium, put it earlier this year: “Despite what you may think, Boris Johnson has never been that popular.

“For example, he was less popular in the 2019 General election than May was in 2017. He only did well because, by that point, Corbyn was incredibly unpopular.”

Analysis by the British Election Study and Sky News reached a similar conclusion.

Their research found it was Corbyn's dismal ratings that gifted Johnson the lead, along with his popularity among Brexit supporters.

Neither of these factors can be relied upon again.

Keir Starmer's popularity is on the up (Yahoo News UK/Flourish)
Keir Starmer's popularity is on the up (Yahoo News UK/Flourish)

Current Labour leader Keir Starmer has seen a popularity boost in recent weeks, with 43% of voters approving of his performance, compared to 36% who disapprove, according to polling by YouGov.

This comes alongside record support for the Labour party, who are leading by margins never before recorded in polls of Westminster voting intention.

Labour are leading the polls by a record margin (Yahoo News UK/Flourish)
Labour are leading the polls by a record margin (Yahoo News UK/Flourish)

What's more, Johnson's popularity with Leave voters dropped steeply throughout his time as PM.

By the time he resigned, 53% of Leave voters thought he was doing a bad job as PM, compared to 43% who thought he was doing a good job.

If Tory MPs think the public would be pleased to see the return of their former leader, snap polling from YouGov suggests otherwise.

Most voters would be unhappy if Boris Johnson returned to No 10 (Yahoo News UK/Flourish)
Most voters would be unhappy if Boris Johnson returned to No 10 (Yahoo News UK/Flourish)

When asked if they would be happy or unhappy to see Johnson return as prime minister, more than half of voters said they would be unhappy, 43% of whom said they would be very unhappy.

Even within the Tory party, Johnson's support is far from universal.

Veteran MP Sir Roger Gale told Times Radio that he would quit if Johnson returned.

His colleague John Baron said it would be “impossible” for him to serve under the former PM.

With an apathetic public and the prospect of yet more Conservative infighting, the chances of Johnson's political comeback are far from secure.