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In the past few days I have run a series of fairly extraordinary focus groups with southern, middle-class Conservative voters. What I have found should keep Boris Johnson awake.
The scale of both fury and disappointment with the prime minister in the wake of the BYOB party and other boozy gatherings is palpable. It has quickly become clear that in London and the Home Counties at least, disappointment with both Johnson’s performance and Johnson’s personality now teeters at the point of no return.
The most common critique is that Johnson simply cannot be trusted to tell the truth. With previous political incarnations – and in focus groups as recently as last summer – the standard motif when discussing the PM with sympathetic voters was that he was authentic and likeable. They were prepared to forgive him almost anything because they liked him. It was always very hard for left-leaning moderates to understand, but voters in their millions believed they could go for a pint with Boris Johnson – and enjoy it.
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This is now long gone – with people most often saying he is “slippery” and that “you can’t trust him as far as you can throw him”. Competence now also comes up a lot – in terms that are new. Whereas before, Conservative voters were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt in almost any circumstances – “he’s trying his best”, “he’s been dealt a very difficult hand” – this instinctive sympathy has evaporated. One put it like this: “Is used to like him – and I used to think he was doing his best in really tough circumstances. Not any more. I’ve had enough.”
Indeed, most worrying for the Tories, very few of these voters say they would vote Conservative if there was an election tomorrow. Some say they will vote Liberal Democrat, with others breaking towards Labour. This now appears to be coming through in the polls too. We can find an explanation for this in my recent focus groups: Keir Starmer is now seen as a plausible prime minister. In the relatively recent past when voters from across the political spectrum were asked about Labour, many would disgustedly bring up Jeremy Corbyn long before expressing an opinion about Starmer.
No longer. People – even those who voted Conservative in 2019 – are fairly relaxed about the idea of a Labour government in a way that was unthinkable a year or two ago. Corbyn is fading into memory. Starmer has done an excellent job at decontaminating the Labour brand.
But – and here’s the thing – these Tory voters are not yet wowed. And they’re not yet sold. There isn’t a Labour vision they’re invested in, and they’re not excited by a Starmer administration. If Starmer’s ambition is to persuade Conservative voters at the next election, then – as things stand – he had better hope the PM clings on. If Johnson goes, then all bets are off. Love him or loathe him – and there are more and more voters in the latter category – Johnson remains the dominant political personality in Britain.
Ed Dorrell is a director at Public First