With the dust settled, for the time being at least, on the question of Theresa May’s leadership, attention turns to what happens next. Much of the focus will be on Parliament, the deal, the internal politics of the Conservative Party, and so on.
But what about the voters? We don’t yet have much information about what the public makes of this week’s events. On the day of the vote, YouGov asked whether people thought May should stay or go – they backed her by 40 per cent to 34, with the rest undecided, widening to 58-28 among Conservative voters.
Polling will no doubt be closely watched in the coming days for views on the no-confidence vote, the backdrop of Brexit, and how people might vote in a general election, to see how recent events have affected voting intention.
We don’t yet have any at the time of writing, the only straws in the wind are the latest set of local council by-elections, which – to the extent that they tell us something – don’t seem to be telling us that the Tory vote is moving violently in either direction.
It’s interesting therefore to consider the impact of previous leadership challenges on a party’s standing in the polls.
For the purposes of this analysis, “challenge” means either a party confidence vote or a contested leadership election in which the incumbent stood, while a “successful” challenge is one that led to a change of leader. In recent decades, there have been four such unsuccessful challenges for the leadership of the two main parties.
In 1988, Tony Benn challenged Neil Kinnock for the Labour leadership, with Kinnock winning overwhelmingly (89 per cent to 11 per cent). This is one case where determining cause and effect can be difficult because the contest went on for such a long time. There was certainly no discernible impact on the polls – Mark Pack’s Pollbase shows that Labour spent much of the year trailing the Conservatives by slightly less than Margaret Thatcher’s margin of victory at the 1987 general election, with little movement.
In December 1989, Thatcher was herself challenged by “stalking horse” Anthony Meyer, a tactic periodically referenced in the current context, but which is not possible under current Tory rules. Thatcher also won comfortably, with 84 per cent of Conservative MPs backing her, nine per cent backing Meyer, and the rest abstaining or spoiling their ballots. Again, there was little effect on the wider public, with polls remaining stable until the weakening economy and poll tax took their toll.
In 1995, John Major called an election in which he stood himself, and was opposed by John Redwood. Major won with just under two-thirds of the vote. This one did have some effect – a positive effect – with Labour’s poll lead of almost 30 points briefly shrinking to around 25 points, although within a few months this bounce had disappeared.
And in 2016, in the aftermath of the EU referendum, Jeremy Corbyn lost a confidence vote among his MPs, but was subsequently returned by party members, defeating Owen Smith by 62 per cent to 38. The impact this had on the polling is controversial within Labour, with some on the left claiming that “we were ahead in the polls before the coup”. That conclusion requires some serious cherry picking, with only one polling company putting Labour ahead at any time in 2016.
Nevertheless, this case is interesting because, like the challenge to Theresa May, it was more factional or Brexit-related than because the party was far behind in the polls. And in any case, the key question here is the change in the polls, rather than the level.
Polling averages suggest that the Conservative lead increased from about three points to around ten points during the period in question. But more than half of this was due to a swing from UKIP to the Conservatives following the EU referendum.
It also coincided with a change of Tory leader, so we can’t even safely assume that the small drop in Labour’s vote share of a point or two was down to the “coup”.
The most obvious conclusion to draw regarding the pattern of these results is that there isn’t one. In two of the four unsuccessful leadership challenges (Kinnock and Meyer), the effect on the party in question was negligible. For John Major it was positive, but temporary, and for Jeremy Corbyn the challenge was made at most a minor contribution to a coincident negative poll move.
Historical comparisons ought to carry a health warning, if only because the significance of this moment for the country raises the stakes, quite unlike the examples above. But if history does tell us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t get to caught up in any public response to last week – what happens next is far more important.