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Bounce back with Sunak?
The wrong people are cheering
We are five months into the Sunak administration, nine months on from Boris Johnson’s resignation and perhaps eighteen months away from a general election. Spring successes on thorny issues such as the Northern Ireland protocol and the NHS strikes have encouraged Conservative hopes that the current PM’s quiet competence is reviving their party’s electoral prospects. Fear of a landslide defeat has given way to cautious hopes the government might enter the next contest with a fighting chance.
Does the polling justify this optimism? Yes and no.The Conservatives have recovered much of the support lost in the Truss crash, and Sunak’s personal approvals are better than either of his precessors when they departed. Yet Tory polling remains stuck below 30%. To prevent electoral disaster, Sunak needs to win back voters alienated by Johnson chaotic final months, or find new support elsewhere. The problem with his initial months is that “all the wrong people are cheering.” Sunak is positively regarded by Remainers who oppose his party, but falls flat with the Brexiteers who delivered the 2019 election win.
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Table 1: Conservative vote shares now vs Johnson and Truss final polls
The very unusual circumstances of 2022, with three Prime Ministers in a matter of months, mean any assessment of Sunak’s performance needs to ask two questions. First, has he repaired the damange done by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s chaotic six week rule? Second, is he delivering better results for the Conservatives than Boris Johnson managed in his post-partygate final months?
In table 1, I take a look at current Conservative vote shares with each pollster, and compare these with the final polls the same company published at the end of the Truss and Johnson ministries. Given the speed of Truss’s decline, I have excluded pollsters who did not publish a poll during the final half (i.e. final three weeks) of the Truss ministry.
All the pollsters agree that Sunak has recovered much of the ground lost under Liz Truss. The Conservatives fell to an average of 22% in the final Truss polls - no pollster had them above 25% and some had the government polling in the teens. This was total wipeout territory. The government are now well out of the existential danger zone, polling an average of 28% in the most recent round of polls. Every pollster records a post-Truss rebound of at least four points, with the bigger bounces approaching ten points.
Reversing disaster is certainly valuable, but it isn’t enough to justify claims of electoral competitiveness. A comparison with the final days of Johnson paints a more sobering picture. The Conservatives were polling an average of 30% in the final weeks of the Johnson administration. After several months of recovery under Sunak, they stand at at average of 28%, 2 points behind their standing last summer. Only one of the eight pollsters have the Conservatives under Sunak ahead of their final polls under Johnson, while three pollsters have them four or more points behind their position when Johnson departed.
People can see what they want to see in ambigious data. Tory optimists can point to a sustained rebound from the dark days of autumn, and project this forward to a competitive campaign to come. Tory pessimists will aver that a party still less popular than it was at the worst points of Johnson’s scandal tainted final months does not look on course for victory. Choose your own adventure.
Table 2: Sunak leader approvals vs Johnson and Truss final approvals
Sunak’s personal polling paints a somewhat rosier picture, as revealed in table 2, which tracks each leader’s approvals with each of the three pollsters who provide sufficient data on this measure to enable comparison. An average of 32% of voters give the current PM a positive approval rating. While hardly stellar, these ratings are not only a major step up on the single digit approvals achieved by Truss in her final weeks, but also well ahead of Johnson’s final approvals. Herein lies a puzzle. Sunak polls better than Johnson, yet the Conservatives are less popular. What gives?
The answer, or at least part of it, may lie with Brexit. Two pollsters provide enough information to break down approval ratings by Brexit vote - table 3 below compares Sunak’s current ratings among Leave and Remain supporters with Boris Johnson’s final ratings. Sunak’s greater popularity is driven almost entirely by much better ratings among Remainers. An average of nearly 30% of Remainers give Sunak positive marks, double the figure for Johnson. By contrast, Sunak’s rating among Leave supporters is no better than Johnson achieved in his partygate hobbled final months. The optimistic take on this result is that it shows Sunak’s more moderate, unifying strategy is working - he is winning a positive hearing from the Remainers alienated by the polarising “Get Brexit Done” politics of his predecessor, and has achieved this without turning Brexiteers against the party.
Table 3: Sunak leader approvals among Leave and Remain supports vs Johnson final approvals
A more pessimistic observer would note that the Conservative party was in a deep hole when Johnson departed, and stands little chance in the next election if it cannot rally the Leave supporters who drove the 2019 victory. As the excellent Beyond the Topline substack noted recently, Sunak’s support is inefficiently distributed - the enthusiasm he gets from Remainers doesn’t translate into votes, because many of these Remainers are dead set against a Conservative vote for other reasons. Meanwhile, the Leave voters most sympathetic to the Conservative brand more broadly don’t find Sunak a very attractive leader.
As a result, Sunak’s Conservatives win substantially lower support from Leavers than Johnson managed, yet have not been able to make up the deficit among Remainers, as Table 4 illustrates. Conservative support among Leavers is on average 6 point lower at present than it was in the final weeks of Johnson’s leadership, while support among Remainers is no higher on average now than then. Sunak risks falling into the Brexit divide he is trying to bridge - unable to enthuse Leavers enough to reactivate the 2019 Brexiteer coalition, yet also unable to rebuild the pre-2016 Tory brand with Remainers.
Table 4: Conservative vote shares among Leave and Remain supporters, latest polls vs final Johnson polls
In a few short months, Rishi Sunak has recovered most of the support lost by Liz Truss in a few short weeks. This is no small achievement given the scale of last autumn’s collapse. Yet it is also nowhere near enough. Making more headway will require progress on the deeper seated problems built up under his predecessors - a misfiring economy, an unfavourable agenda, and poor performance ratings across a wide range of issues. I will dig into these in future posts.
Updated 2.37pm 28th March to correct errors in the text describing one of the tables. My thanks to Neil Moss for flagging these errors up.
The ever excellent Mark Pack comes to similar conclusions - “bit of a recovery, but only to a level that would still be seen as dreadful on its own.
A line with some historical resonance for a leader struggling to overcome divisions over Europe. It was originally said by Dora Gaitskell to her husband Hugh after he gave a rousing Eurosceptic speech to the Labour conference, widely praised by the leader’s enemies on the left of the party. Gaitskell’s problem, like Sunak’s, was that one round of applause isn’t worth much if the audience has many other reasons to oppose you.