Earlier this week there was a new YouGov poll of Conservative party members in the Times or, more specifically, two new polls of Conservative party members: YouGov polled the same party members before and after Boris Johnson came out in favour of leaving the EU to see what impact it had on the leadership race. Results are here.
At the simplest level Boris was ahead before, and was ahead afterwards, but there were some interesting shifts. Boris’s approval rating among Conservative party members dropped significantly after he came out (from 83% approval to 76% approval), but his position in the leadership race improved. Presumably he annoyed some members who saw his actions as disloyal or disagreed with his stance, but he consolidated the support from those who did not.
Almost unavoidably Boris coming out was going to upset some members – he has carefully avoided having many fixed political opinions over the years, so I expect many pro-European members would have assumed Boris agreed with them, many anti-EU members would have assumed Boris agreed with them. For once, he is forced off the fence and forced to upset some people – so his overall approval rating among Tory party members fell. However, in the race to be the next Tory leader his position has improved. 43% now say they’d back Boris, up from 38%, with support falling for Theresa May and Sajid Javid, both of whom were seen as potential “outers” and both of whom ended up supporting Remain. Asked how they’d vote in a match up between Osborne & Boris the figures don’t change as much (Boris 55%, George 36% before, Boris 56%, George 38% after) – the broader balance between those party members who want Osborne as the next leader and those who don’t hasn’t changed much, it’s just Boris is now more clearly the “not-George” candidate.
Only a quarter of Tory party members said that the leadership candidates’s stances on the EU were an important factor in picking the next leader – 4% said they wanted the next leader to be someone who had campaigned for the UK to stay, 20% wanted the next leader to be someone who campaigned to leave, three-quarters picked other criteria as their main considerations. Far and away the most widely picked criteria was someone who will make a competent PM, picked by 67%, followed by someone who has a good chance of winning the next election on 52%.
At the moment, Boris is very clearly the front runner if he reaches the stage of the membership vote. At the moment that looks relatively likely – there will be a fair chunk of Conservative MPs who will want to vote for a leadership candidate who supported leaving the EU, and Boris is now obviously the biggest “pro-Leave” beast in the Tory party (though it will be interesting to see how the Parliamentary party divides – Boris maybe anti-EU, but he is not otherwise associated with the Tory right. Will the right of the parliamentary party fall in behind him, or will they want their own “proper” standard bearer?).
That said, it is very early days. If the referendum is lost it’s possible Cameron could go soon, but if not he may be here for a few years yet. Among Conservative party members there is very little call for Cameron to make an early departure – only 20% think he should step down in 2016 or 2017 (roughly the same proportion as think he should change his mind and teste the next election – the majority think he should stay till at least 2019). In reality though, any pressure for Cameron to go early will come from the Parliamentary party, not from the rank-and-file membership, and I expect that will depend upon the extent to which the Tory party rips itself apart over the next three months and the final result of the referendum.