As you’ll have no doubt spotted from the copious library footage of cigar-smoking fat men in fedoras on the news bulletins, Ken Clarke has lumbered into the ring to contest the Conservative leadership again. You can’t be a perennial Conservative leadership contender for a decade without having had quite a few polling questions asked about you, so what do the polls say about Ken Clarke?

The first, and most obvious, thing to point out is that Ken is the most popular contender. As I write there have been four polls asking the general public who they would prefer as Conservative leader; Ken Clarke had a good lead in all four.

Obviously this doesn’t mean he will necessarily do well. With the honourable exception of YouGov’s poll of party members on the one occasion that Conservative party members actually elected the leader, opinion polls have been a remarkably poor predictor of who will win a Conservative leadership election. In 1990 the public told ICM that Heseltine was their preferred candidate, in the 1997 leadership election Clarke was the first choice of more people than the other four candidates combined. In 2001 Clarke lead, with almost double the support of Michael Portillo. In October 2003, just prior to the ousting of IDS, YouGovfound that the public’s preferred leader of the Conservative party was – surprise, surprise – Ken Clarke. Ken has been the public’s choice for Conservative party leader for the last ten years, for what little good it’s done him (in comparison, in each of those polls the eventual winners of the subsequent leadership election were backed by 9%(Major), 9% (Hague), 7% (IDS) and 3% (Howard))

Ken Clarke’s remarkable popularity in questions like this is probably down to a mixture of three factors: recognition, ideological stance, and genuine likeability. In recent polls a large factor in Clarke’s lead is almost certainly recognition – respondents haven’t a clue who the other names they are presented with are. Prior to the 2003 “contest” Populus asked if various potential leaders would make people more or less likely to vote Conservative – the most common answer for David Davis, Theresa May, Oliver Letwin and Michael Ancram was that people had never even heard of them – only 10% of people said this about Ken Clarke. While David Davis has presumably become a more recognisable figure since then, Ken Clarke is still head and shoulders above other candidates in terms of recognition – last month Populus asked people to name various Tory politicians from photographs – only 6% could name David Cameron, only 27% could name David Davis and even Ken Clarke was only named by 50% of respondents.

Secondly there is Ken’s ideology. A survey that asks the whole country who they would like as Tory leader includes an awful lot of people with left of centre views, who naturally find Ken Clarke’s views the closest to their own. Ken Clarke is the favourite Tory politician of the left in the same way that many Conservatives will sing the praises of Frank Field and Kate Hoey. A another recent poll on the leadership, carried out by YouGov, asked only Conservative members and voters. In this poll Ken trailed behind David Davis, so it seems Ken is less popular amongst Conservatives than amongst non-Conservatives.

This is not necessarily a bad thing – part of his platform is that he can win the votes of people who don’t currently vote Conservative – but if his support is confined to people who would never vote Conservative, while alienating those who currently vote Conservative, it would hardly be a positive. The two groups of voters that matter therefore are those who currently vote Conservative, and those who don’t, but might be pursuaded to. There have been a few polls of Conservative voters that asked about the leadership, and they have shown contrasting results. Populus have found that Ken Clarke is the most popular candidate, even amongst current Tory voters, albeit with a much lower margin over Davis than amongst the public as a whole. YouGov on the other hand found that Ken Clarke came second amongst Tory voters, with 23% making him their first or second choice. Unfortunately 42% of people named him as the candidate they definitely wouldn’t want as leader. There is, therefore, a question mark over Clarke’s popularity amongst current Conservative voters, presumably due to his past refusual to compromise on his pro-European views.

What about people who don’t vote Conservative though? Populus’s July poll broke down figures for “swing voters” – i.e those people who told Populus they might change their voting intention before the next election. This demographic group had the strongest support for Clarke, with 30% chosing him as the best potential leader, compared to 9% for Davis. So part of Ken Clarke’s appeal in polls does seem to be due to his support amongst non-Conservatives, but these are not write offs, in fact his support seems to be strongest amongst people who might switch to the party.

Finally there is Clarke’s own personal affability. Ken Clarke hasn’t always been popular, as Education Secretary he was loathed and as Health Secretary just before Margaret Thatcher was deposed in 1990, he was one of the only ministers who ICM asked about who had a lower satisfaction rating than Thatcher herself (Thatcher’s was -12, Clarke’s was -42, Major +20, Hurd +28). In recent years he has cultivated an affable, blokish sort of image, and is indisputably a “big beast”. Back during the 2001 leadership election, ICM asked people about whether various descriptions could be applied to Ken Clarke with positive results, particularly amongst former Conservative voters who had abandoned the party, former Tories thought he was a natural leader, a potential PM and that he recognised the need for change. They rejected the idea that Clarke was extreme, arrogant or out of date. So, while part of Clarke’s popularity in the polls is because of his recognition and ideological stance, part of it is simply because he has a likeable image.

So, leaving aside whether people like the man or not, would he actually win extra votes? In the same way that polls asking how people would vote were Gordon Brown Labour leader invariably show whopping great Labour leads, with Clarke’s apparant popularity you might expect a similar pattern when voters are asked how they would vote were Ken Clarke leader of the Tories. The pattern is actually far less clear.

Questions asking if people would be more or less likely to vote Tory with Clarke in charge have shown mixed results. Back in 2001 when William Hague was in charge, ICM found people would have been significantly less likely to vote Tory if Ken had been leader, a month later after Hague’s resignation ICM found that Ken would, on balance, make people very slightly more likely to vote Tory. By the end of IDS’s brief leadership, people told YouGov and Populus they would be significantly more likely to vote Tory with Ken in charge.

I have only been able to find one poll that actually asked voting intention, and then asked it a second time, imagining that Ken Clarke was leader – it was carried out by YouGov in February 2003. Normal voting intention was CON 32%, LAB 37%. If Ken Clarke was leader, people said they would vote CON 30%, LAB 37% – in other words, Ken’s imaginary leadership lost support.

So, while Ken Clarke is pretty indisputably popular, and what’s more popular with the right people, the only time that people have said that his leadership alone would make them significantly more likely to vote Tory was when they were comparing it to the final weeks of IDS’s leadership.

A mixed bag so far. I’ll leave you with two issues that will inevitably face Clarke’s campaign – his age and his views on Europe. Back in March 2002 Radio 4 commissioned ICM to conduct a focus group of Tory party members on the Conservative leadership for them. One of the exercises was to imagine that IDS had resigned, and to select a new leader from a list of 12 using a “weakest link” type knockout. After IDS himself had been eliminated the first one to go was Clarke – not because of his Europhilia, but because of his age. That was four years ago. Now, no pollster has asked “Is Ken Clarke too old?” – the closest we have is a Populus poll from last month, which asked which characteristics people thought were desirable or undesirable in a new leader. The characteristic that elicited the most negative response, by some distance, was for a candidate to be in their mid-60s. Ken Clarke is 65.

It is obviously too soon for there to have been any polls on Ken Clarke’s views on Europe since his announcement earlier this week that he had been wrong to back the Euro, and that Britain would not enter in his lifetime. Back in 2001 though ICM found that 69% of Tory voters thought that a Clarke leadership would split the party over the Euro. The important figures though are probably these ones, from MORI, which show which issues facing the country people think are the most important. Here is a graph, drawn by Chris Lightfoot, showing how the saliance of the issue of the Europe has declined in recent years. Whether or not people think Clarke has changed his mind on Europe or not, he will be relying on the fact that people simply don’t seem to care as much about the EU as they once did.


Comments are closed.