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.


-->