Tomorrow’s Times has a poll of Conservative party members about the forthcoming leadership election, showing Theresa May ahead of the supposed favourite, Boris Johnson. Asked who would they would prefer as party leader May is on 36% to Johnson’s 27% (Andrea Leadsom and Stephen Crabb are both on 7%, Liam Fox is on 4%). Party members only actually get to vote on the final two candidates of course, and in a straight contest between Theresa May and Boris Johnson current support stands at May 55%, Johnson 38% – a seventeen point lead for May. The full tables are here.
Theresa May appears to have had a good EU referendum campaign or at least, by standing a little aside from it her reputation has survived intact while most other Tory politicians have been damaged. When YouGov asked Tory members if they had positive or negative impressions of various politicians 72% were positive about May, up 4 from before the referendum. In contrast Boris Johnson was at 58% (down 18 since the referendum), Gove 63% (down 6), Sajid Javid 42% (down 8), IDS 54% (down 9), George Osborne 47% (down 21). She is also one of relatively few figures who is positively regarded by both those members who supported remain and those members who supported leave.
Part of the turnaround appears to be the perception that Theresa May is better placed to unite the party – 64% of party members said this was one of the most important considerations (up twenty points since Febrary) and May has a thirty point lead over Johnson on who would be better able to unite the party (46% to 16%). Given the current political and economic situation, she also has a lead over Johnson on ability to handle a crisis (49% to 18%), taking tough decisions (46% to 18%) and negotiating with Europe (32% to 22%).
Boris Johnson’s own strengths are still apparent though – he is seen as by far the best media performer and the candidate who best understands how to win an election. Both he and Stephen Crabb are ahead of Theresa May on who party members think would be most in touch with ordinary people. While the poll shows him losing in a May -vs- Johnson run off, they still suggest Boris would win in a run-off against Stephen Crabb (by 54% to 31%) or Liam Fox (by 52% to 29%).
This is, of course, a very early poll – it was conducted between Monday and Wednesday, so before nominations opened or the final list of candidates was confirmed. Party members don’t yet know what pledges and promises the candidates will make, what their detailed stance will be on Europe or other key issues. For less well known candidates like Stephen Crabb many members won’t know much about them at all. As the race begins though, Theresa May has the early advantage.