Glen O'Hara: The Boris bounce is less buoyant than it seems

Written by Glen O'Hara on 13 August 2019 in Opinion

Behind the headline polling numbers Boris Johnson's path to a Commons majority is rockier than it looks.

All the mood music about Boris Johnson’s young government seems positive. His administration seems to have a sense of purpose, a directing mind, and an objective: Brexit at all costs. The Conservatives’ rating has risen in the polls, they lead in most of them, and they are keeping their opponents guessing with a string of populist announcements such as more health spending and tougher policing.

The objective is clear: win a near-term General Election by grabbing votes, and the initiative, back off the right-populist Brexit Party. Get back Brexiteers and social conservatives, attract small-‘c’ conservative Labour sympathisers, and cruise to victory.

This strategy looks good when you read it on the page. But it is possible to doubt whether it will translate into actual reality, especially as Theresa May has already provided us with a disastrous dry run. Voters’ reaction to leaders is not just about policy, but also personality – and it is impossible to think of a politician less likely to appeal to Labour Leavers and pro-Union Scots than the apparently bumbling, southern and very English Prime Minister who now sits in Downing Street.

Most voters distrust Johnson. Labour voters in particular detest him, and that’s a problem both in terms of moving those voters in particular, and if the Tories want to win more seats. Recent polling by Lord Ashcroft demonstrates that Johnson counts as a -1 on a ten point (-5 to +5) ‘positivity’ scale among Labour Leavers (his score is an appalling -4 among Labour Remainers). Those exact same Brexity Labour voters dislike even Jeremy Corbyn only very slightly more. So why on earth would they uproot more than a generation’s tribal loyalty over a single issue, however important – especially for an affluent Etonian? The strategy makes no sense.

Liberal Democrat Insurgency

Johnson’s image is going to make the Conservatives’ electoral challenge harder, not easier. YouGov have looked at this question by region, and he is vastly unpopular in England’s North East (at a net -20 ‘favourable’ score) and North West (-29). Five out of the Conservatives’ top twenty target seats are in those two English regions.

The Conservatives desperately need gains from Labour, because they have exposed their central, liberal and Remainery flank to insurgent attack by the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and even the Greens. Although it’s always dangerous to generalise from unbalanced polling subsets, the last two YouGov polls show about a tenth of 2017 Tory voters (and about a fifth or a quarter of Labour supporters) defecting to the Liberal Democrats.

Given what we saw at the local and European elections, those moves are also going to be localised among high-end professionals and graduates: a sure-fire way for the Conservatives to lose (say) Richmond Park, Cheltenham and St Albans. If we also assume that the Conservatives will lose five to ten seats to the SNP, that means that Johnson is going to need perhaps thirty or even forty gains from Labour just to make up his losses to the orange and gold teams.

Can he do it? Perhaps. Dudley North looks like a likely gain from its Independent MP, Ian Austin. Ashfield is another, especially as Labour’s Gloria De Piero is stepping down. But elsewhere, seats such as Stroud and Battersea might prove much harder nuts to crack.

All in all, yet again the pack mentality that’s natural in the press corps and in politics is telling us one thing – but the numbers are just not there. On average, Johnson has only a small lead over Labour. The latest data from Opinium and ComRes puts that advantage at only three or four points, numbers that if borne out at an actual election could leave Johnson clinging to office in just the same way he is now.

By throwing himself pell-mell towards Brexit at any cost, Johnson has probably given himself the best and simplest chance of winning an election. But will it actually work? It is a high-wire act that looks like a 50/50 call – and if he falls, he loses everything he has schemed and worked so hard to achieve.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author or editor of a series of books on modern Britain, including most recently The Politics of Water in Modern Britain (2017).

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