Whither Boris?

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.

92 Responses to “Whither Boris?”

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  1. @statgeek,

    Yep I agree, I have said for a long time that bringing back Darling would be a master stroke as he appeals to the middle ground and even many Conservative voters, but I don’t think EM will do it.


  2. Boris’s popularity would shrivel up and die once his pro-immigration and pro-Europe attitudes became known.

    A trulu audacious move would be for Boris to announce he is interested in the leadership of … the Liberal Democrats. They actually seem more of a fit with him, ideologically. And I think they’re just about desperate enough to go for it.

  3. howard

    Thread title

    [it isn’t tom watson]

  4. Darling/master-stroke

    Yes, I well remember how the right wing used to say:

    “What a cracking chancellor that man is” [not]

  5. @HOWARD

    “Believe me everyone, the Falkirk nonsense will have no impact on polling whatsoever.”


    Maybe. But it would nonetheless be interesting to know what people think.

    It may be, for example, people do have an opinion on the matter, but it’s overriden in general by other concerns when it comes to VI.

    Or they may fundamentally not care about the issue much at all. Colin and Rich seem to care about it at any rate!!

    Ps., I think Malcolm may have been questioning Boris’ record of achievement, especially on the transport front…

  6. Obviously some glee from certain quarters over Falkirk. It may have legs, but equally it may not. For political attacks to have a long term impact, they need to have a sense of reality about them – remember ‘Demon Eyes’?

    This yet turn into something bad for Labour on a broader scale, if it kicks off a bout of internal division and soul searching, but equally I’m scratching my head wondering how average voters are going to react at news that the countries biggest union boss is having quite an angry go at the Labour party leader. A disinterested observer just wandering past the story might be tempted to wonder why Tories are claiming Ed’s in Len’s pocket.

    At this point, action from Labour seems to have been quite dramatic, with suspensions, resignations and inquiries. I’ve been too bored to follow the story in detail to be honest, but if there are ongoing spats then Tories/SNP will get their wish, if Ed nails it and is seen to nail it, a key Tory attack line will be blunted, and stay blunted all the way to 2015, but probably not a great deal will happen in reality, with not a great consequence.

  7. @paul,

    But he would be more popular the Balls, that was my point, and polling AW has highlighted has shown this.


  8. Paul Croft

    Oooooh -you meant ‘thread title’. It’s your faux (well faux something’) that I didn’t get.


    Anoraks grasping at straws -it’s what they do (we do??, I’m not sure I am really entitled to be one of the club).

  9. Rich,

    If Miliband brought Alistair Darling on before the 2014 spending review and after (for the sake of argument) a good win in the independence referendum, it could have quite an impact, BUT does Miliband want to give GO some easy lines on Darling’s chancellorship and to generally associate himself with pre-2010 Labour?

  10. Can someone tell me why everyone runs in terror when unions are mentioned, while not caring about the private capitalist funding the Tories get?

  11. rich

    polls invariably show that someone else would be preferred. Do bear in mind that a large number of respondents are patently telling porkies and really don’t rate either.

    It’s that sort of daft poll that enabled Major to get a jump on Heseltine for thre Tory leadership. I occasionally wonder what the Tory history would have been like had Michael won.

  12. Interesting thought. I did like Major, but he was let down by a number of people. Heseltine was always very progressive, principled, and rather liberal for a Conservative. I felt for him never getting a shot.

  13. @HOWARD

    “Anoraks grasping at straws -it’s what they do (we do??, I’m not sure I am really entitled to be one of the club).”


    Well with the polls edging closer people are more liable to look for more minor impacts on VI since the become more significant.

    But to Lib Dems way off the pace it may seem so much more hopeless and pointless right now…

  14. ‘Heseltine was always very progressive, principled, and rather liberal for a Conservative. I felt for him never getting a shot.’

    I think you will find that Heseltine was really a National Liberal – which became allied to the Tories during the 1930s National Govt and was formally consumed by it in the mid-1960s. Heseltine was/is a great admirer of Lloyd George.

  15. Just came across this:


    “Scottish independence: Your questions answered”

    Only watched Nicola Sturgeon so far (it’s late). Not a bad interview. Might be worth watching them all to see what all are saying.

  16. Whatever the merits of Darling may be,there appears to be a level of concordance in the approach of the two Eds.They appear to be offering the electorate a package of working in unison,just like Cameron and Osborne.And Darling didn`t always offer that when he worked under Brown.His `Thatcherite cuts` comment validated the Tory approach prior to the general election.

  17. Latest YouGov / The Sun results 4th July –

    Con 31%, Lab 39%, LD 11%, UKIP 12%; APP -31

  18. Dunny -on -the-Wold making the headlines.

    I love comments like “Thread title-[it isn’t tom watson]”
    when a story not entirely to Labour’s advantage appears.

    Such imprecations are never issued when threads stray into some juicy story which is embarrassing to the Conservatives.

  19. I think Darling’s reputation stems from the single comment when he said this would be the worse recession since the 1930s.

    He was seen to be honest and to be saying something a, by then very unpopular, Gordon Brown was not happy with.

    For this relative honest the press and conservatives have praised him.

    The discussion is most likely academic as he is not ‘free’ until after the Scotland referendum and by then it would be too late to make any changes if there is a no result.

    He could come back in some capacity to help with the campaign as a kind of support spokesman a bit like Ken Clarke can help with centrist voters deliver the Cons message.

    Another ‘polldrums’ 8

  20. Although the Labour Party action in Falkirk may seem unusual and draconian it isn’t all that uncommon. I believe that there are currently about 8 CLPs that are in special measures, usually around membership issues.

    Despite being a member of UNITE I’m pretty disgusted by their actions and their capabilities. When I joined it was as part of MSF, which then merged with to become Amicus, which then… At least MSF had some idea about my industry – Unite has none.

    I also thought that membership (of the party) required you to pay for your own membership…

  21. @Colin – ” …imprecations are never issued”

    Imprecations are usually ‘uttered’, or ‘called down upon’ some unlucky recipient.

    Boris, with his scattergun approach to the English language, would probably have gone for something like “imprecations and admonitions” in the hope of finding a grandiose term to fit the context.

  22. 8% Lead seems to be a Trend is 31-32% the best the Tories can do.
    Will be a difficult argument for Cameron if Miliband is actually Unite’s poodle why has McKlusky got out of His Pram because He thinks Unite is being targeted by Miliband?

    I predict less than 8 next week (That’s mentions of Len in PMQ’s not lead)

  23. This is so depressing, the Tories want to rerun the 80s almost as if they don’t realise that things have changed since then

  24. Labour down a point then… But wait a minute, whats this? So are the Tories!
    Crosbie’s attack strategy seems to be working nicely ( he is working for the Lib Dems isn”t he?)

  25. Sunday poll may tell if there is any real effect. I shall get my pups ruminating.

  26. Everybody knows that Labour are funded by the unions and their MP’s are sponsored by unions. So no big deal and I would expect no impact on polling.

    It is perfectly normal for Tories to be supported by city financiers and the rich. Labour to be supported by unions. Lib Dems to be supported by morris dancers.

    How do you fund political parties, so you can’t accuse them of being bought by interest groups ? State funding ?

  27. “How do you fund political parties”

    Our country’s usual attitude – moan at all the options.

    I do wonder if the hyperbole surrounding the Falkirk issue will really resonate. Possibly the Tories can make the “vote” today work for them but I assume there will be two party leaders explaining why its a waste of time and only one explaining why its a jolly good idea.

  28. Given our prior discussions on the economy, on what socialism is, etc. etc., I though tbis government move interesting…

    “Treasury keen to boost John Lewis-style ownership

    Consultation on tax break for worker shares follows evidence businesses owned by staff are up to 19% more productive

    The Treasury is hoping to encourage a wave of John Lewis-style businesses by launching a consultation on £50m worth of tax breaks for employee-owned companies.

    The government wants to make it easier for entrepreneurs to hand ownership of their companies to employees amid evidence that businesses owned and influenced by workers, such as the department store group, have proved more resilient during the economic downturn.

    Chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said: “The employee ownership sector has huge potential and the government wants to support it as much as possible. Employee ownership is of significant benefit to the wider economy, through increased growth and business success and this business model will also add greater diversity to our economy.”


    “Chancellor George Osborne announced in this year’s budget that the government would provide £50m in 2014, and the same amount in 2015, to support employee ownership. Alexander will say on Thursday that the government will provide tax relief that is “supportive and effective”.

    The Treasury will consult on offering capital gains tax relief when a controlling stake in a business is sold to employees collectively, rather than to individual shareholders.

    A second tax break would allow employee-owned companies to pay staff a tax- and national insurance-free bonus each year. At present, payments such as the annual John Lewis staff bonus are taxed at up to 40%, the same level as the rest of their pay, whereas dividend payments to shareholders in publicly listed companies are taxed at 20% and are not subject to National Insurance. Alongside the Treasury consultation, the department for business, innovation and skills is launching national employee ownership day.”


    So in these interesting Topsy-turvy times we have Labour rowing back on welfare and at odds with unions, while Tories have discovered state investment multipliers and the workers controlling the means of production.


  29. @carfrew,

    John Lewis is a great store. Old fashioned retailing done well.

    One thing Thatcher was right on, is that worker/share ownership helps engagement and productivity. John Lewis might not be private, but the concept is the same, if you have a share inthe success, then you’ll work harder.

  30. Interesting poll and I expected a bigger dent in Labour’s VI and lead, to be honest. Falkirk still has the capacity to hurt Labour, especially if it precipitates a bout of internecine warfare between the relatively small in number but ever vocal Blairite rump and some on the old Left of the party. Miliband will have to nip that in the bud but, perversely, he may be able to use the fracas to his personal advantage. McClusky isn’t all bad by any means and has the capability to be a serious and important trade unionist, but he’s politically maladroit and could serve as a convenient and symbolic punchbag for the Labour leader. If Miliband gives him a good public going over, as melodramatically as possible to ensure the full media effect, his leadership credentials will be enhanced and a Tory fox will have been shot.

    The stakes are high for the Labour leader and disaster awaits if he gets it wrong, but I have a funny feeling that this could be a convenient crisis for Milband and one that his still nascent and wobbly leadership may well need.

    It will be very interesting to see how it plays out in the polls. If the Labour VI is as soft and flaky as many on here have claimed, then the Falkirk fall out is just the sort of issue to frighten faint hearts away. If, however, Labour ride it out fairly unscathed, or even strengthened if Miliband plays his hand well, then expect more worry beads to be passed around Tory and Lib Dem High Commands. Dave may have to run a few more barbecues to steady nerves, I should think! God knows what Nick will do! lol

  31. Mike Smithson tweeting that UKIP outpolling Tories in latest Survation poll before re-allocation of don’t knows


    Con 23%, UKIP 22%, Lab 36%, LD 10%

  32. I think it is quite interesting that David Cameron appears to have taken on the job of PR man for Len McCluskey. I expect Len is delighted to be name checked a dozen times during PMQs.

    Cameron & Crosby are making Len a household name but they’ve failed to demonise him; nor do they appear to have realised that the current Union leaders are articulate & good at dealing with the media. IMO, the majority of the public won’t view Len as a threat.

    And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Labour’s VI go up because of all the media coverage.

  33. I think most ‘normal’ people ie. not those that are likely to visit polling sites, would only look at the Falkirk malarky & gloss over it.

    The inner workings of a political party are of no interest to Joe Public who lets face it, can barely be bothered to turn out to vote.

  34. Richard
    I think AW covered this in His study of polling reallocation However I am quite sanguine with a 13% lead!

  35. @Amber,

    Wasn’t it you who was singing the virtues and transparency of labour MP selection in Scotland a few weeks back to me. :-)


  36. @ Crossbat

    If Miliband gives him a good public going over, as melodramatically as possible to ensure the full media effect, his leadership credentials will be enhanced and a Tory fox will have been shot.
    IMO, that’s not what Ed M will do. He needs to get both sides to ‘take a chill pill’; he can sort this out so that neither the Party nor the Union is ‘damaged’ by it. Ed is rather good at that sort of thing, I believe.

  37. Some of the more thoughtful Tories are now nervous that the union-bashing has gone too far. I don’t live in a particularly typical part of the country – it’s true-blue, but also a cradle of the co-op movement – but the local feeling is that it has. Quite a lot of local Tories are also union members and are offended by the implication of party leadership and some of the more juvenile public commentators that they are therefore somehow the enemy for being part of democratic organisations designed to help people help themselves.

    This row may not budge VI as much as folk might think. It might not even help the Tories at all in the end as they suffer from their traditional problem of a group of vocal public commentators simply not knowing when to keep quiet.

  38. Yougov vs Survation

    Fieldwork date: 3 July

    UKIP 12% Yougov, 22% Survation (10% difference)
    Cons 31% Yougov, 23% Survation (8% difference)
    Lab 39% Yougov, 36% Survation (3% difference)
    LD 11% Yougov, 10% Survation (1% difference)

    I can’t see that much difference due to margin of error or differences in how don’t knows and likelihood to vote is done. It must go down further than that – to who is answering the surveys/ who is on the panels?

  39. @Amber Star

    “IMO, that’s not what Ed M will do. He needs to get both sides to ‘take a chill pill’; he can sort this out so that neither the Party nor the Union is ‘damaged’ by it. Ed is rather good at that sort of thing, I believe.”

    You could be right, although I still think he’d prefer to stamp his authority on the dispute, reminding the wider public of who actually leads the party. If he’s skilful, he can do this without burning any bridges with anyone, but a display of assertive leadership wouldn’t do him any harm at all, in my view.

    As for the the latest welter of opinion polling on Johnson, what’s the point of it? Has Ashcroft got a vested interest in promoting him as some sort of Tory king across the water, I wonder? Beyond that Tory centric interest, what purpose is served by yet more data telling us that quite a lot of people think he’s funny? He’s not even an MP, let alone a member of the Government and while I’m not diminishing the role of Mayor in any way, let’s remember that he is a politician who attracted the votes of an almost derisory 18% of Londoners in the first ballot when he stood for re-election last year.

    That said, the cult of Johnson marches on and you have to say that the man himself, and his influential backers, are running the slickest of slick PR exercises

  40. The New Coke reference is interesting as one of the main causes of the problems was a market research error. The new drink was sweeter than the original recipe, which people tended to like when given a mouthful in a taste test. However, when people started drinking it for real and having a whole can or more at a time, the sweetness was too much and became offputting. It’s also argued this is why Pepsi beats Coke in taste tests (the famed Pepsi Challenge) but isn’t as popular in real world sales.

  41. colin

    “I love comments like “Thread title-[it isn’t tom watson]”

    It’s great that such small things give you so much pleasure. I wrote that because a very long artice by Anthony on ole Boris, entitled “W****ER BORIS”, was summarily hijacked by TOH’s exciting news about The Battle of Falkirk.

  42. Paul

    I think the thread was easy to hijack because few here consider Boris to be anything more than a distraction

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