Last week Lord Ashcroft released some new polling on Boris Johnson and I said I’d write more about him in a couple of days time. Alas I should have been quicker, for everyone is now busy fussing about Unite and Tom Watson, but the what the hell! I’m not going to go through Lord Ashcroft’s findings – you can read them yourself here – but cut straight to the bit that always gets the attention, the potential for Boris as Prime Minister or leader of the Conservative party.
In Lord Ashcroft’s poll he found 23% of people said they would be more likely to vote Conservative if Boris was leader, 17% less likely. So a small net advantage, with UKIP voters the sub-group most likely to say that Boris would increase their chances of voting Conservative. Now, regular readers will know I’m not the biggest fan of questions that ask “would X make you more or less likely to vote Y” (the people who say more likely are often people who’d vote for that party anyway, the people who say less likely are often people who’d never vote for that party under any circumstances). However, we’ve also seen the Boris leadership question asked as a hypothetical voting intention question by YouGov and that shows a similar pattern. Compared to a control question Boris as Conservative leader would cut Labour’s lead by 6 points, with the biggest transfer coming from UKIP voters.
The polling is pretty consistent in terms of people saying they’d be more likely to vote Conservative with Boris Johnson as leader. However, most people also said they preferred the taste of New Coke, people are not very good at answering hypothetical questions, and reality doesn’t necessarily pan out the way hypothetical polls suggest. The challenge therefore is to look below the topline questions, understand why people say they are more likely to vote for Boris Johnson and from there, decide if it helps us work out whether people really would be more likely to vote Conservative with Boris as leader.
The reasons for Boris’ popularity are pretty obvious and for once the intuitive explanations are backed up by the polling. You’d expect Boris’s popularity to be based on being likeable, genuine and not seeming like a typical politician…and indeed the polling does suggest people see him that way. Ashcroft found that 53% of people thought Boris was “different from most politicians, and in a good way” (and a further 18% thought he wasn’t really a politician at all). 71% think he is likeable, 70% a people person. Recent polling for YouGov found 70% thought Boris would be interesting to spend time with, a different league from other politicians, and he was seen as “genuine” rather than “stage managed” by 48% to 37%.
Being likeable and fun and entertaining though might be good qualifications to appear on Have I Got News For You, it might get you high ratings in opinion polls, but it doesn’t necessarily mean people would trust you with important jobs that affect their lives. There is the crux of the “Boris question”. To take a different example of an “anti-politician” leader for a second, Nigel Farage enjoys very good approval ratings as leader of UKIP, he has comparatively good ratings for being interesting company, in touch and genuine… but his ratings drop through the floor if you ask if he’d be up to governing or good in a crisis.
Right now Boris Johnson isn’t like that. While YouGov found Boris was seen as slightly less up to the job or good in a crisis than David Cameron, but his figures were still pretty good. Ashcroft’s findings were even better for Boris, with him scoring more highly than Cameron on almost everything, including being strong, competent and up to the job. Right now, Boris seems to have got the golden combination of being seen as a genuine person and not a politician, and also being seen as someone who is seem as being a reliable, capable figure of government. This is a more surprising finding, given his clownish demeanour sometimes we might have expected people to dismiss him as a serious figure… but the figures speak for themselves. Back in 2007 Stephen Shakespeare wrote about Boris Johnson needing a Prince Hal moment, where he repudiated his own inner-Falstaff and emerged as a sensible, grown up statesman. There was a similar cartoon (by Garland in the Telegraph, I think, though sadly I can’t track it down) showing a new, neatly groomed Boris saying “I know thee not” to his capering, woolly-hat wearing former self. I thought it was a wonderful metaphor at the time, but of course it didn’t work out like that. Boris won the mayoralty without a Prince Hal moment, and is still there, waving a flag while stuck half way down a zip wire, blathering on about wiff-waff and scattering mistresses in his wake. His approval ratings in London remain high, even amongst Labour and Liberal Democrat voters. Boris… is just Boris.
The Ashcroft polling may shed some light on this – one thing he found, particularly in the focus groups, was that a significant minority of people were under the impression that Mayor of London was just an ceremonial role – 42% thought it just about generating publicity – a job that Boris would obviously be perfectly suited to. Ashcroft also found very vague perceptions of what Boris stood for – people were pretty evenly divided on whether he was pro- or anti- Europe, far from certain about what he thought on gay marriage. A majority did think that Boris was anti-immigration (when of course, he’s actually been far more pro-immigration than most of his party). It all points towards something that is common in hypothetical polls like this – people don’t actually know much about someone, but they let their imagination fill the gaps. Given they have a positive view of Boris in terms of his entertaining personality and him seeming to have done pretty well in London, they fill it with positive perceptions of his values and abilities.
The only place where it falls down is when Ashcroft gets round to asking if people they think Boris would be capable of running the country as Prime Minister – only 35% do. 35% don’t and 30% don’t know or neither agree nor disagree. So despite the majority saying he’s likeable, strong, up to the job, gets things done… only just over a third think he’s up to Prime Minister. Those are still probably pretty good figures (I doubt many other politicians would hit 35%), but it’s less than the sum of Boris’s parts. More than that, if you look into the figures only half of present Tory voters think he’d be able to do the job of Prime Minister. The rest of that 35% is largely made up of Labour and Lib Dems voters, at least some of whom would probably take a far more negative view of Boris were he actually to become leader of the Conservative party.
Of course, that’s not to disparage the obvious positives the poll shows about Boris’s potential. To be able to been seen as both an “anti-politician” and someone people think would make a capable and competent leader is the magic ticket for a politician. I would just be rather uncertain how those attributes would hold up under fire, once Boris had to make some serious unpopular decisions and people stopped being quite so ready to laugh with him.