While much of our circumstances remain anything but normal – the outbreak continues and the country remains in partial lockdown – politics as usual has started to re-assert itself. Or at least it has in terms of public opinion. The rally around the flag period appears to have ended and people are once again willing to be critical of the government. The government’s approval ratings have dropped and the large Tory lead in the polls has deflated.

In one sense it was inevitable that this would happen sooner or later – partisanship would reassert itself. The specific trigger however seems to have been the badly handled announcement of the minor lockdown relaxations on the 11th May, at a time when the public had very little appetite for any relaxation at all. That knocked the Conservative lead in the polls down to the low teens, and first pushed their approval rating into negative territory.

That was compounded by the Dominic Cummings affair. Certainly polling on the specifics of the Cumming affair were strongly negative, with most of the public thinking he had broken the rules and should resign. More importantly it appears to have damaged the government’s wider support, with the three polls conducted since then showing a Conservative lead of only 5 or 6 points. Note that all three of those polls were conducted at the start of this week when the story was still at its height – it remains to be seen whether the polls have yet to pick up the full damage, or whether they will recover now the story has moved on.

As the Cummings story fades somewhat, the focus is likely to go back to how and when the government ease the lockdown relaxations. The announcement that people will be allowed to gather in groups of up to 6 in their gardens actually seems to have gone down well, with two-thirds of people supporting the change. The more substantial change in the week ahead though is the re-opening of schools, something which most polling has suggested people are opposed to. If the opening of the schools is seen as a failure (or worse, if death rates or infection rates are seen to start creeping back up again), it can only further damage the government’s standing with the public.


Support for the government’s handling of the outbreak remains high. While it has declined from an initial peak, far more people think the government are handling the issue well than badly (YouGov’s latest tracker has 58% saying the government are doing well, Opinium has 48% approve/36% disapprove). This is equally reflected in the voting intention polls where the Conservatives are steadily around 50% and in Boris Johnson’s own personal approval ratings, which YouGov has at 66% doing well. Collectively these are extremely impressive figures for a government.

However, look further down and there are signs of weakness in the foundations. There are several, important areas where the public view the government’s handling very negatively. Opinium have found people disapprove of how the government have handled both testing and the provision of PPE. At the start of the month YouGov found that 67% thought the government had prepared badly for the possibility of a pandemic and 62% thought lockdown had been introduced too late. MORI also found 66% thought the government had acted too late. Compared to other countries, people think that the British government has performed worse than the governments of Germany, South Korea, Australia, France, Spain… the only country’s government perceived as doing worse than our own is the USA. Put together that looks like a narrative of failure.

How do we square these two sets of figures? Why do people think the government are doing well, despite also thinking they’ve handled some of the key areas poorly and got some of the most important decisions wrong? My own explanation is that we may be seeing an unusual amount of public goodwill towards the government – a willingness to give them the benefit of the doubt, accept that they are doing their best under incredibly difficult circumstances. Normally we are very cynical towards our politicians, but right now it may be that people are more willing to trust their motives, to want them to succeed.

It’s also worth noting that, even if the public think the government haven’t always performed capably during the crisis, right now there is strong public backing for their direction of approach. The public are strongly in favour of the lockdown and the government are pursuing a policy of lockdown. Therefore, the public approve. The British public have been extremely pro-lockdown since early in the crisis – back in March, the public were ahead of the government in supporting further restrictions and they remain supportive of it.

Back at the end of March I pondered how long the high levels of public support for lockdown would last once it was actually in place and impacting people’s lives, and how the government would fare if they got to the point that the public were clambering for relaxation. So far it appears to have lasted just fine, and it is possible that the government may have to face the alternative problem – how to start loosening the lockdown when the public are nervous of it.

Right now there is little public appetite for a weakening of the lockdown. A YouGov/SkyNews poll on Friday found only 15% thought it would be right to start relaxing the lockdown now. A Deltapoll survey for the Sun on Sunday today found only 12% of people thought the government should start ending the lockdown in the next week.

That is not to say that whatever Boris Johnson announces tonight will be unpopular (the questions above did not specify particular ways of weakening the rules, so I expect respondents assumed some sort of substantial weakening of the rules, rather than the extremely minor relaxations which seem more likely at this point). However, there are problems ahead. Sooner or later lockdown needs to be unwound, and it remains to be seen how united public opinion will be behind the timing for that.

It will also be interesting to see what the levels of public support for the government look like afterwards. Their present high levels of approval may be the result of backing for lockdown, or a general willingness of people to give the government the benefit of the doubt during a crisis. Whatever the reason it will pass, and only then will we be really be able to see whether, looking back in hindsight, the government are seen to have successfully led the country through a difficult time of crisis, or as a government that bungled its response.


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Update

Apologies for the lack of posts – there has, of course, been plenty of regular polling on public attitudes towards the coronavirus, notably from YouGov, Opinium and Ipsos MORI… I can’t quite bring myself to dive into it though.

This week there was also the regular Welsh political barometer, ably dissected by Roger Awan-Scully here.


The final Sunday before the election. There should be plenty of polls out tonight (certainly we should see ComRes, YouGov, Deltapoll and Opinium – and perhaps others). I will update this post as they appear, and then round up at the end.

The first to appear is SavantaComRes. Slightly confusingly they have two polls out tonight, conducted using slightly different methods, over different timescale and showing slightly different results.

The first was conducted for RemainUnited, Gina Miller’s anti-Brexit campaign, and was conducted between Monday and Thursday. It has topline figures of CON 42%, LAB 36%, LDEM 11%, BREX 4%. The second was conducted for the Sunday Telegraph, with fieldwork between Wednesday and Thursday. Topline figures there are CON 41%, LAB 33%, LDEM 12%, BREX 3%. Tables for the SavantaComRes/Sunday Telegraph poll are already available here.

The previous ComRes poll was conducted for the Daily Telegraph with fieldwork on Monday and Tuesday, so the RemainUnited poll actually straddles the fieldwork period of both polls. It was also asked a little differently. The most recent two ComRes polls for the Telegraph have prompted people with the specific candidates standing in their constituency (i.e. someone would be asked if they will vote for Bob Smith – Labour, Fred Jones – Conservative, etc, and not be given the option of voting for any party that is not standing in their area). In contrast, it appears that the ComRes poll for RemainUnited was conducted using their previous method, where candidates were just prompted with a list of parties – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and so on. For some reason, ComRes seem to find a higher level of support for “other others” when they prompt using party names.

Putting that aside, the SavantaComRes poll for the Telegraph earlier in the week had a 10 point Conservative lead. Comparing the two SavantaComRes/Telegraph polls that used the same methodology shows the Tories down 1, Labour up 1. A small narrowing in the lead, but nothing that couldn’t just be noise. I’m expecting a fair number of polls tonight, so we should be in a position to see if there is a consistent trend across the polling companies, rather than getting too excited about any movement in individual polls.

UPDATE1 – Secondly we have Opinium for the Observer. Topline voting intention figures there are CON 46%(nc), LAB 31%(nc), LDEM 13%(nc), BREX 2%(nc). Fieldwork was conducted between Wednesday and Friday and the changes are from a week ago. There is obviously no movement at all in support for the main parties here. The fifteen point Tory lead looks daunting, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Opinium have tended to show the largest Conservative leads during the campaign.

UPDATE2: The weekly YouGov poll for the Sunday Times has topline figures of CON 43%(+1), LAB 33%(nc), LDEM 13%(+1), BREX 3%(-1). Fieldwork was Thursday and Friday, and changes are from their midweek poll for the Times and Sky. Again, no significant change here. YouGov’s last four polls have had the Tory lead at 11, 9, 9 and 10 points, so pretty steady.

Finally (at least, as far as I’m aware) there is Deltapoll in the Mail on Sunday. Changes are from last week. Their topline figures are CON 44%(-1), LAB 33%(+1), LDEM 11%(-4), BREX 3%(nc). A slight narrowing there, leaving the Conservative lead at 11, but again, nothing that couldn’t just be noise.

Looking at the four companies who’ve released GB opinion polls for the Sunday papers, we’ve got ComRes and Deltapoll showing things narrowing by a little, YouGov showing the lead growing by a point, Opinium showing no movement. The clear trend towards Labour we were seeing earlier in the campaign appears to have petered out. The average across the four is a Conservative lead of 11 points, though of course, these are tilted towards those pollsters who show bigger Conservative leads. Taking an average of the most recent poll from all ten pollsters producing regular figures gives an average of 10 points.


I wrote about this in my last post – exploring what, if anything, we could tell from the polling about whether Boris Johnson would get the blame if Brexit did indeed end up being delayed past the 31st October.

With the government now pushing for an election in December the issue has now arisen again, with lots of people dragging out a ComRes poll from the 16-17th October that asked how people would vote in an election if Britain had NOT left the European Union on 31st October, showing Labour one point ahead. Some people are sharing it with excitement, others with dismay. Both should probably calm themselves.

As a general rule, you can only usefully ask people a polling question if they actually know the answer… and most of us aren’t actually very good at predicting how we will respond to hypothetical situations. If you take this specific question, it was asking people to imagine quite a lot. How had the delay come about? Had the government fought it, or gone along with it? How had the government explained and reacted to the delay? Given the dates of the fieldwork, many respondents wouldn’t even have known about the deal. All of these things will impact how the public react and whether they blame the Conservatives or not… but were impossible for respondents to know.

In short, polls measure current public opinion. They can’t predict the future. While you can ask respondents to predict their own future opinions, they aren’t necessarily very good at it.