With Michael Howard’s resignation letter due to land on Michael Spicer’s desk on Friday the Conservative leadership election has now really begun, the country having endured a sort of phoney leadership election for the last five months. During that time almost every week has brought a new selection of polls on the Conservative leadership, but can we actually gain anything useful from any of them?

Looking over the polls we have to date (and I’ve no doubt there will be plenty more over the weekend), here are 5 things we can actually tell from the polls and several things that, despite what you may have read in the press, we can’t tell.

1) Clarke is the most recognisable candidate

Polls by Populus and Yougov both showed that Clarke was the only candidate who the large majority of people could put a name to. David Davis was recognised by about half of people asked, while Liam Fox and David Cameron can only be described as obscure figures.

Clarke’s public recognition is not really a plus as leader – whoever becomes party leader will rapidly become known to the public anyway. What this does means is that the polls showing Ken Clarke as far and away the most popular of the candidates amongst the general public are of little or no value. Put simply, for a large group of respondents Ken Clarke will be the only candidate they have ever heard of, so asked which is their favour candidate their only realistic choices will be either “Clarke” or “Don’t Know/None of the above”. The effect of recognition is clearly demonstrated by a poll by BMRB immediately after London won the 2012 Olympics which found the people’s favoured candidates for leader were Ken Clarke…and Seb Coe.

Yougov’s study for the Spectator, which sought to give respondents information about candidates prior to asking questions on them, demonstrated this – once respondents obtained some knowledge of the other 3 candidates they no longer trailed behind Clarke.

2) Clarke and Davis have – or had – the support of the members

Which two candidates will qualify for the final round is anybody’s guess at this point, especially since David Davis’s conference speech. We what do know from YouGov’s polls of party members (which were spot on in 2001) is that prior to the party conference Clarke and Davis were the most popular candidates with the party membership, with David Cameron in third place. In the event of a Clarke/Davis final round it would be very close – party members told YouGov they would vote for Davis by 48% to 44% for Clarke. In a Davis/Cameron final round Davis would have won quite easily.

Both of these polls were, however, taken prior to the party conference. If the party membership have reacted to the conference speeches in the same way as the political pundits then the next polls may show a very different picture indeed.

3) Clarke would face some minor difficulties in keeping the party united

YouGov’s last poll of party members suggested that Clarke’s main weakness in the eyes of party members was that he would not be able to lead a united party – he was rated above Davis on every other count, but trailed behind him on party unity. Are they right? The poll also showed that a quarter of party members who said they would vote Davis were so anti-Clarke that they would seriously consider resigning if Clarke won. This equates to about 12% of the Conservative party’s membership, and would obviously be a blow to them if it actually happened. That said, it is important to keep this in perspective – it is easier to tick a box on an online survey saying you’ll resign than is it to actually getting round to doing it – many of these will be idle threats (equally, Clarke supporters would argue that he could also attract new party members to replace those who may leave).

4) David Cameron has the most positive image of the candidates

While the candidates are not well known enough to ask nationally representative polls of people to say what they think about them, there have been a number of smaller qualitative polls that have looked at the images of the candidates, ICM did a “hall test” using silent video footage of each candidate, and Frank Luntz, the US Republican pollster carried out a similar test, but using video clips with sound, for BBC Newsnight.

In ICM’s study Ken Clarke was seen as genial, approachable, charismatic, tough and a serious political figure, but on the downside he was seen as arrogant and not particularly trustworthy. His arrogance was his weakness in Luntz’s study too – people were turned off by Clarke’s tendency to talk about himself and he came out surprisingly poorly.

ICM found that David Davis was seen as attractive, trustworthy, smart, competent, but also rather grey and uncharismatic. Even Davis’s own campaign team accept that he is a comparatively weak public speaker, but these studies suggest there is a deeper problem with a lack of charisma.

David Cameron on the other hand shone in the qualitative polling – people found him presentable, trustworthy, confident and seemed to have a generally positive perception of him. Frank Luntz’s Newsnight report said that reactions to David Cameron were the most positive he had ever seen such a test. Informing his group of Cameron’s priviledged background did very little to lessen their ardour. On the downside ICM’s test also found people thought that Cameron looked bland and shallow – for people who deride (or indeed praise) Cameron as the Conservative Tony Blair, the focus group evidence does seem to the support it.

Some of the studies published in the media sought to give quantative results to studies like this – saying that x% of the group preferred Cameron. This is not a wise thing to do, they aren’t nationally rep surveys, nor are they supposed to be. Liam Fox was also absent from the ICM test and given little coverage in the Newsnight report (though the coverage he did get seemed very positive). All these studies can do is give us a good idea of the way candidates are likely to come across in the public eye, and they suggest that Cameron has the advantage over Clarke and Davis in terms of image, though naturally it doesn’t necessarily follow that he is better in other ways.

5) Which candidate would increase the Conservative vote the most?

There have been several polls that have asked how likely people are to vote Conservative with candidate A or candidate B in charge. There have been several polls that asked rhetorical voting intention questions – who would you vote for if Brown was Labour leader and Clarke/Davis was Tory leader. These are quite a good way of measuring the popularity of candidates relative to one another, but it doesn’t tell us much at all about what will actually happen to the way people vote.

People answering opinion polls are not stupid – if you ask a rhetorical question about how people would vote if X was the leader people do realise it is an attempt to gauge the popularity of candidates, and use it indicate approval for one candidate or another.

That said, in the short term, were a new Conservative leader announced tommorrow then the opinion polls published next weekend would probably show the largest increase in the Conservative vote if Ken Clarke was the new leader. Certainly polls asking hypothetical voting intention questions have shown this. What happens after that is a different matter – while Ken is a known quantity, we cannot know for sure how much other candidates would increase or decrease the Conservative vote once they became known by the public, nor what policies they might introduce, mistakes they might make, or victories they might win.

Earlier this week the EU agreed to start membership talks with Turkey. Turkish entry raises a number of questions – Turkey would be the first country with a mainly Muslim population to join the EU, and the majority of its area is in Asia, rather than Europe. There are also questions over its human rights record. The British government has always been a supporter of Turkish entry, not least because it is thought that Turkey’s membership might slow the pressure for European integration.

Turkish entry into the EU has never been a particularly contentious subject in the UK, unlike in some other European countries. The last time a British newspaper poll asked about it was a YouGov poll for the Telegraph back in December 2004, which found that 30% of British people supported Turkey joining the EU, while 42% of people opposed it, 28% didn’t know.

Despite this low level of support, Britain is actually one of the most pro-Turkish countries in Europe. The question of Turkish membership was also included in the lastest Eurobarometer survey by TNS. This found that 45% of British people supported Turkish entry, compared to 37% who opposed it – a net approval of +8 (the difference between this and the YouGov poll last year is likely to be because YouGov explictly said in the question that Turkey was a ‘mainly Muslim’ country, the Eurobarometer survey did not). Compare this to countries like Italy (net disapproval of -19), Belgium (net disapproval of -25), France (-49), Germany (-53) and Austria (-70!). Sweden, Spain and Portgual and many of the new member states are roughly inline with British opinion, but the populations of the other core EU states are solidly against Turkish entry.

So why the difference? To an extent it is probably a reflection of the fact that British people are less interested in the internal issues of the European Union, but the Eurobarometer survey does give some clues. The survey included a list of statements about Turkish entry, and asked respondents if they agreed or disagreed.

There are some interesting differences – Swedish respondents seemed to share the concerns of the rest of the EU about Turkey’s economy and human rights record, but strongly agreed with the statements that Turkish entry would improve stability in the region and help improve understanding between ‘European and Muslim values’, so their support seems to be because they think the positive benefits of having Turkey on board outweigh the negative factors.

Support from Spain, Portugal, Ireland and the UK on the other hand seems to stem from people not sharing the fears of other member states – only 69% of Portugese respondents thought that Turkey’s human rights record was a problem, compared to 83% of people across the EU as a whole and over 95% in countries like Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands. Across Europe as a whole 76% thought Turkey would have to improve its economy, but in Ireland, UK, Spain and Portugal the figures were all consistently lower.

Given the fears raised about immigration to the UK from Eastern Europe in the last round of EU expansion, you may be somewhat surprised to find that the UK was one of the countries least worried about the effect Turkish entry would have on immigration – 52% thought that Turkish entry would favour more immigration into developed countries, only Luxembourg and Lithuania were less concerned. It is immigration that seems to be what lies behind the opposition to Turkish entry in some other countries – in Austria, the country most-opposed to Turkish entry, 78% of respondents thought Turkish entry would favour more immigration.


ICM’s website has a new poll on taxation, carried out on behalf of Reform. As part of a wider study looking at flat tax schemes they asked about taxation in general, and about where people think the tax bands should be drawn.

The first batch of questions concentrated on the top rate of income tax, and found that people were broadly receptive to economic arguments for lowering it. About 50% of people agreed that a lower top rate of taxation would lead to people working harder and earning more money (43% disagreed), asked if a low top rate of taxation would make the economy grow faster 51% agreed (35% disagreed) and asked if a low top rate of income tax would help keep British business competitive a large majority agreed (60% to 28%).

In all these question Conservative supporters were more likely to agree than supporters of other parties, but almost every case supporters of other parties also agreed with the statements (the exception was that a majority of Lib Dem voters didn’t think that a lower top rate of tax would make people work harder).

ICM then asked at what point it was fair for people to start paying income tax. Only about 8% of people chose a figure below £5,000 (the current tax allowance is £4,895). The median answer was £10,000-£10,999 which, interestingly enough, is the level proposed by the various flat tax plans that think tanks have been toying with in recent months.

The median answer for the point when people thought it fair for people to pay the higher rate of taxation wasn’t far off the actual level – the median answer was £40,000-£44,999, as compared to the actual level, which is presently £37,296. 29% of people said £35,000-£39,999 or lower.

So, while people would be perfectly happy with the increased personal allowance that flat tax plans include, and seem to be fairly receptive to the arguments in favour of a lower top rate of taxation, they also seem to be perfectly happy with a top rate of taxation at around the current point. The actual plans for flat tax that have been presented by groups like the Adam Smith Institute have included cuts in public expenditure which might be rather less easy to sell, although ICM did also ask if respondents thought it was possible to cut taxes while making public servives better through reforming public services (64% agreed).

While the survey danced around issues connected to flat tax, but never actually addressed it, Reform apparently also commissioned some focus groups which dealt directly with the question of flat tax, and found that people were either unaware of it or downright puzzled by the idea.

YouGov’s monthly poll is in this morning’s Telegraph. The topline figures, for what little they are worth during the Conservative party’s leadership interregnum, are CON 32% LAB 40% LDEM 20%. The poll also included a wide range of Conservative party questions in advance of their conference next week.

First, since we’ve been discussing how few people actually know who the Conservative leadership contenders are, there was a question on recognition. People were given photos of various Conservative politicians, and asked to type in the name of the person. Almost everyone (98%) was able to correctly identify Michael Howard. Amongst the leadership contenders Ken Clarke was obviously top, identified by 83% of people, followed by David Davis who is now correctly identified by 57% and Sir Malcolm Rifkind on 47%. In contrast, Liam Fox was only identified by 19% of people, while David Cameron was only named by 10%. Boris Johnson was the third most recognised of the Tory MPs in the survey.

When YouGov asked people who they preferred as candidate their choices were, as usual, drawn from the more recognisable candidates – 28% said Clarke with Davis second with 9%. Clarke also leads amongst Tory voters by 34% to 17% for Davis.

More interesting of course is the opinion of party members, since the party leadership’s failure to pass their new leadership rules last week means that the final decision will still be left to rank and file members. The result is still incredibly close – asked who they would like to see as leader Clarke and Davis were neck-and-neck at 30% each, while asked how they would vote in a final round contest between Clarke and Davis, Davis lead by 48% to 44%. Compared to YouGov’s last poll of party members, taken almost immediately after Ken Clarke’s campaign launch, the gap between Davis and Clarke on first preferences has closed, but the gap between them in a Clarke-Davis run off remains almost identical.

YouGov also asked a series of other questions which asked party members to compare the relative merits of Clarke and Davis. Clarke won on nearly every count – by 45% to 39% they thought Clarke would be better at attracting new members, by 49% to 38% they thought Clarke would stand a better chance of winning the next election, by 56% to 33% they thought Clarke would come across better on the telly, and by 63% to 29% they thought Clarke would be a better opposition to Brown and Blair in the House of Commons. So why wasn’t this reflected in their vote? Presumably because they also thought that David Davis would be far better at keeping the party united, by 52% to 35%.

Would they be right? Well, YouGov asked people who said they’d vote for Clarke in a run-off what they would do if Davis won – 6% said they would seriously consider resigning. In contrast, if Clarke won then 25% of those who voted Davis would seriously consider resigning. That’s about 12% of the party membership, although it’s worth remembering they only said they would “consider” resigning, which is a very different thing to actually doing it.

Back in their poll of the general public YouGov also asked questions about the Conservative party’s image, about which groups in society they thought the Conservative party were closest to. Predictably the Conservative’s were seen as being very close to rich people (+87) and professional and business people (+80), they were also seen as very close to country people (+42). Equally predictably they were seen as very distant from traditional Labour demographics such as trade unionists (-66), the poor (-72) and the working class (-65). They were also seen as distant from minority groups such as gay people (-49) and ethnic minorities (-54). What should be really worrying for the Conservative party is how distant they were seen as being from all the other groups YouGov asked about – women (-27), the elderly (-28), people in towns and cities (-28), the young (-66) and – most telling of all – “people like myself” (-42).

Finally YouGov asked a question about what the Conservative party’s approach to public services and taxes should be – should they commit to running public services pretty much as they are run at the moment and spending pretty much the same amount of money on them (while cutting taxes through cutting red tape) or should they cut down the role of the state, slash public spending and taxes and get private companies more involved in providing public services. Voters as a whole preferred the former by a large margin (52% to 19%), Conservative voters preferred the former by a smaller margin (53% to 39%) and potential Conservative voters (people who told YouGov they wouldn’t vote Tory at the moment, but said there was quite a good chance they would in future) supported the former by an even larger margin (62% to 27%).

There is an ICM study in today’s Guardian which, like the YouGov poll in last week’s Spectator, tries to get round the fact that some of the Conservative leadership candidates are very unfamiliar to the public by giving respondents information about the candidates before asking questions.

The ICM study used a panel of 100 floating voters, so while it was much larger than a traditional focus group, it was still more of a qualitative poll than a quantative one. Panellists were drawn from floating voters who didn’t vote Tory in 2005, and were shown silent film of three of the candidates, in a technique apparently drawn from US pollsters. Hence opinions were based on the candidates’ appearance, mannerisms and so on, rather than their political message.

Levels of recognition followed the usual pattern, 66% of people recognised Clarke, compared to 25% who recognised Davis and only 4% who recognised Cameron.

Panellists thought that David Cameron came across as presentable, confident and trustworthy, but also bland, shallow and too young for the job. He was considered the most likeable of the three candidates and was seen by far as the candidate most likely to appeal to young people. About half the panel though Cameron came across as competent, which was less than Davis and Clarke, while a third though he was charismatic, putting him between Davis and Clarke.

Ken Clarke was seen as jovial, genuine, approachable, tough and experienced, and was seen as an effective potential Prime Minister. 38% thought he was charismatic, more than Davis or Cameron, and 56% thought he looked competent. However, on the downside he was also seen as arrogant and less trustworthy than the other two candidates.

Finally David Davis was seen as smart, trustworthy, confident, young-looking and the sort of person who would be able to see where the Conservative party was going wrong. He was seen as the most competent of the three candidates, but fell down on charisma – only 20% thought him charismatic – panellists thought that he was grey and that the public would have difficulty relating to him.

Putting it all together, the panel were asked their favourite choice as leader – 41% chose Clarke, with Cameron second on 31% and Davis on 26%. However, when asked who they thought was the worst candidate the answers were almost the same – 39% thought Clarke was the worst, followed by 30% Cameron and 23% Davis. Ken Clarke was therefore the most popular candidate, but also the most disliked. Davis was the least popular candidate, but also the least disliked.

Asked to rate the candidates as potential Prime Ministers there was barely any difference – David Cameron was top with an average rating of 5.7/10, but since Ken Clarke’s average was 5.69 they were for all intents and purposes the same. Davis was on 5.58/10 – so again no real significant difference.

There was no voting intention question, but asked how they would lean if Gordon Brown was Labour leader and each of the three candidates were Tory leader Cameron came out best, with 50% saying they would lean towards the Tories, compared to 43% with Davis and 41% with Clarke.