Another unanimous victory for the Prime Minister at our latest Savanta ComRes PMQs focus group, but the PM did not escape without criticism, which ultimately begs the question “what more can Starmer do?”
While ‘winning’ PMQs remains a question that ultimately doesn’t matter – who, exactly, is keeping score? (except myself) – what the three ‘victories’ in a row for the Prime Minister shows is that despite a turbulent few weeks, he still has the upper hand over his opposite number when it comes to the head-to-head battle that may influence how people vote at the next election.
This remains the Prime Minister’s trump card for as long as he remains in charge, and while there are still hurdles to overcome in the future (Met Police investigation, a cost of living crisis and a potential Covid inquiry would be enough to concern any leader), on the basis of recent performances the Prime Minister may still have enough to turn things around.
“Definitely Boris won, he was quick off the mark, has his points and he stays on those points.” – Brent
This group of voted-Conservative-in-2019-but-currently-undecided voters spoke a lot about integrity, and how the Prime Minister lacks it. Some will never trust him again over Partygate, and some felt as though his recent comments regarding Keir Starmer and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile was just another in a long line of things the Prime Minister has said that underlines a distinct lack of integrity.
Some, I’ve no doubt, will not vote for him again due to this, whether or not they felt as though they genuinely believed in him in 2019 or were just ‘lending’ him their vote. There was even some who openly regretted their decision to vote Conservative in 2019 and feel wholly let down by the Prime Minister and his government. Ironic, it felt, that Starmer led PMQs on fraud when, among this group of 2019 Conservative voters, many feel as though the Prime Minister is less joker and considerably more fraudster.
“I think, Boris Johnson, his comments were ill advised, childish and showed a lack of integrity.” – Michael
“I actually think he represents the party, you know, so whatever he’s doing, I think also affects the party as well. For him not to actually want to apologise shows that he’s not even interested in the people who voted for him. What he’s doing now shows that he’s not really a good leader.” – Ifeoma
“I voted Conservative because I trusted the policies and thought they were the best party to vote for. But obviously my view has changed on that.” – Lucy
It’s not just Partygate and his comments around Savile that have turned voters off of the PM and the Conservatives as a whole. Some feel as though their whole handling of the pandemic has been mismanaged, and considerable u-turns, most recently on mandating NHS staff to be fully vaccinated have eroded trust that the Conservatives know what they’re doing, are a party of competence.
Recent policy announcements around National Insurance rises are seen to be hitting the wrong people, there’s a lack of trust in the energy bill discount/rebate/loan (delete as applicable), and even Rishi Sunak came under scrutiny for lacking a plan to pay for the heavy spending to get the country through the pandemic.
Very few prominent politicians from the Conservative Party were praised, either for policies (Johnson and Sunak) or as viable alternatives for leader (no mention of Truss, Javid et al as leaders who would inspire confidence and help win these voters back to the Tories).
Even the vaccine rollout, a line Johnson continues to peddle as proof of his government’s competence and something Labour would have failed to deliver, didn’t particularly cut-through with this group, with some scepticism over its success but a greater sense that any perceived success isn’t enough to win these voters round; a successful vaccine rollout does not make a successful government, seemingly was the feeling.
“We’ve got National Insurance going up and it doesn’t seem to tally with my wages not going up, and the cost of my children’s upbringing and everything is going up. So actually if it’s just a loan that they’re offering me if I have to pay it back, then no, I find that quite insulting.” – Sabrina
“It’s a dodgy loan, you know, rather than a proper plan.” – Brent
“It’s just talk about the vaccine rollout. And at the end of the day, if that’s all he has, it’s almost ineffective.” – Ifeoma
“There are not very many people that will be up to the challenge at the moment. I think if I had to choose someone, it’d be someone like Ed Davey, because it’s just completely different. But I think Boris, Rishi and Keir are probably not the ones at the moment.” – Lucy
So far, so negative, then. But here’s the issue; these voters are not so turned off the Tories, they’re rushing to Labour. In an impromptu ‘show of hands’, none of this group felt as though they would vote Labour if an election were tomorrow (although a few did seem to be leaning Labour after more probing), but were more likely to think about voting for other parties or were genuinely undecided.
Obviously, this group isn’t hugely representative; our, and many other pollsters’ Voting Intentions are showing a shift towards Labour, hence the relatively new (and consistent) advent of strong Labour polling leads, but even in those quant studies we are seeing more 2019 Conservatives being undecided than directly switching to Labour. When these undecided voters are squeezed, where will they go? Labour need to win these voters, not just rely on an unpopular Prime Minister to be off-putting enough to lose the Conservative’s votes by default.
“You know where’s the Labour alternative? Where’s the other plan? You get credibility by doing that. That’s what I feel is still is still missing.” – Brent
Which is why despite a negative showing for the Prime Minister, the monumental lack of trust in him, a continued sense that he lacks integrity, and a sense that they don’t seem to have the policy answers to tackle the big issues, no-one feels Labour would do any better.
Policy announcements from an opposition party too far away from a General Election are rare and usually counter-productive, but undecided voters want to see far more substance from Labour and Keir Starmer before either returning ‘home’ after loaning Boris Johnson their vote in 2019, or making the switch to Labour after being a genuine swing-or-Conservative-leaning voter.
Despite not seemingly doing much wrong compared to Johnson, Starmer doesn’t scream ‘integrity’ to this group either, his questioning lacks punch and there’s very little from voter perceptions that Labour would deal with any of the issues facing the country – namely the Covid-recovery and cost of living crisis – any better than the Conservatives.
“I look upon Keir Starmer as more of a watered down version of Boris to be quite honest. I don’t see any integrity there.” – Michael
“I’d like to see a better, stronger team around Starmer to be honest. He needs to beef up the party’s policies.” – Dale
If voters do not trust that Labour would be any better than the status quo, why ultimately would they vote for them? A cynic may say that after 12 years of Conservative-led governments, they’ve had plenty enough time to sort out many of the problems the country still faces, but yet the benefit of the doubt still remains Boris Johnson’s; the actual doubt seems to more lie in that Labour can do any better.
We may be a long way from the next election – we may, also, not be – but Labour need to do a far better job of proving to the electorate that they can be trusted to do better than the current Conservative offering else, it seems from this group at least, that the electorate may be more willing to give the government more of chance to put things right than they are the Labour Party; Labour still feels a leap of faith that undecided voters are reluctant to make.
Words by Chris Hopkins, Political Research Director at Savanta ComRes.