Three reasons why Boris Johnson can survive the public’s anger at Partygate

This article first appeared in the Mail on Sunday.

Looking at my latest polling it is easy to see why many believe Boris Johnson’s Downing Street days are numbered.

My new 8,000-sample survey shows the opposition ahead not just on traditional Labour issues like the NHS and public services, but on supposedly Tory territory like immigration and crime. Voters say they are more inclined to trust Labour to run the economy.

When it comes to the premiership, Keir Starmer rates higher than Johnson in nearly all areas: communicating effectively, leading a team, formulating effective policies, having the right judgment in a crisis – and doing the job of prime minister overall. Apart from willingness to take tough decisions for the long term – a double-edged sword that can suggest callousness as well as realism – the Conservatives lag Labour on all other qualities we asked about: unity, values, being “on the side of people like me”, having the right priorities and (disastrously for a centre-right party) competence.

The government’s response to rocketing living costs has hardly helped. In our focus groups, a few wise souls said they always knew the lavish pandemic spending would have to be paid for, and asked what any minister could do in the face of global markets. But most of those who had noticed the March mini-Budget were unimpressed. Not only did the help on offer feel derisory in comparison to steep tax and price rises, revelations about the non-dom status of the Chancellor’s wife, the couple’s combined wealth and his apparent inability to make a contactless payment at a petrol station reinforced the impression of a government at one remove from real people’s lives.

And that is before Partygate. As my poll found, just under half of all voters – including most 2019 Tories – think either that the issue is trivial or that, the PM should be allowed to focus on more important things. But the 47% who told us they thought he should resign over the issue included nearly one in five previous Tory voters, and nearly one third of those who switched to the Conservatives from Labour at the last election.

Notably, in our focus groups it was often these first-time Tories who were most angry with Johnson. Having had the highest hopes for him, they were the most surprised and disappointed to have been let down. They had regarded Johnson as a maverick but not a liar or a lawbreaker. This episode showed him to be part of an elite that looked down on them, not – as they had felt in 2019 – on their side against the Brexit-blocking political establishment.

All of which helps explain why, forced to choose between the Johnson-led Conservatives and a Labour government with Keir Starmer as PM, my poll found voters choosing the latter by a 14-point margin.

No wonder so many believe Johnson is doomed, or that the Tories’ chances at the next election depend on his departure. But from my research, I see three reasons why Boris and his party have a path to survival.

First, though we know the Partygate anger goes wide and, for some, deep, it is not clear it will be a dealbreaker for a decisive number of voters. Often in our focus groups people would spend a good hour grumbling about Johnson and his party (and his parties) and then say at the end, usually with a sigh, that they would probably vote Conservative again next time – or at least that they were on the fence. In our poll, four in ten of those leaning towards the Tories said they thought Johnson was a rogue and a chancer but that wouldn’t stop them voting for him. For some there was also a feeling that with Brexit, covid and now Ukraine, Johnson hadn’t really had a chance to show what he could do – a remarkable sentiment after 12 years of Tory-led government.

Second is the lack of an obvious successor. Though there were unprompted honourable mentions in our groups for Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi and Liz Truss, there was no indication that any one figure had the potential to transform the party’s standing. Some continued to see Johnson as an appealing figure, regarding his resilience and staying power as an important trait of leadership. With no time machine available to take the Tories back to 2015, the coalition Johnson assembled is the only one open to the party, and no guarantee that anyone else could deliver it.

Thirdly, to put it kindly, Keir Starmer has yet to take the nation by storm. “It’s just ‘we wouldn’t have done that, this shouldn’t have happened’,” as one borderline voter told us. “Nothing to make me think ‘this guy’s got a plan, he knows where he’s going’.” Some wondered whether Labour had really changed and could be trusted to run the country, especially given Starmer’s previous incarnation in the Corbyn shadow cabinet. For many, his apparent hedging on the question of what defines a woman said more about his fear of upsetting the radical wing of his party than about the issue itself: “He left it pretty wishy-washy, and I don’t want a wishy-washy prime minister,” said one.

All this suggests the poll numbers say more about people’s grumpiness with the status quo than a firm endorsement of the alternative.

Recent events have brought Johnson’s longstanding opponents into alliance with some of those who helped put him in No.10. His job is to persuade the latter that, to coin a phrase, there is more that divides them than unites them with their new confederates. Voters won’t forget Partygate. The question is how many of them – given time, a proper apology and a renewed focus on other priorities – will forgive or at least disregard it. But time is just what his opponents don’t want to give him.


Related Stories
Keep up to date with political & polling news
Sign up to our newsletter below