2 October 2019

Is this a Tory conference that will move the dial?


It’s been said many times – and not without justification – that we are living through an exceptionally volatile period in British political history. And conference season, being one of the few political fixtures that consistently cuts through, often makes for lively polling results at the best of times.

Add to that an eventful and difficult last week for the Prime Minister, including the ruling by the Supreme Court that parliament had been prorogued unlawfully, and the row over his language in the Commons, and you have what sounds like a recipe for voting intention fireworks.

And yet that’s not what’s happened. Four polls have been conducted since the ruling, and although each indicates a small movement in the parties’ vote shares, the changes are neither large nor consistent.

Compared with the average of their respective polls prior to the ruling, both Labour and the Tories are within a point of where they were, the Liberal Democrats are up a couple of points, the Brexit Party unchanged, and the other parties down a point between them. So far, the evidence seems much more consistent with statistical noise than genuine movement.

Before going any further, it should be noted that fieldwork for some of the polls pre-dated (or partly pre-dated) the “humbug” row, making it a bit harder to conclude that that incident hasn’t had an impact. And the allegations of sexual harassment against Johnson, which he denies, became public after the most recent poll, so couldn’t have had an effect on any of them.

Why do things appear to be so stable? Well, there are certainly a few things we can rule out. Firstly, the current context is not like the first year or so of this parliament, where polls were stable for a long period. The last three months have seen far more volatility than at any point this decade.

Nor did reaction to ruling split entirely along party or Brexit lines, with non-trivial minorities of both Tories and Leavers backing the court.

What may be a factor is how badly both of the two largest parties and their leaders are perceived. Polling has consistently shown that neither Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn are rated well.

As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush has pointed out, Johnson’s net satisfaction ratings with Ipsos MORI (-18) are lower than David Cameron during the Panama Papers, Nick Clegg in 2011, Ed Miliband in 2015 and Tony Blair in 2006, and yet Corbyn’s net rating is 42 points worse (-60).

Meanwhile, the government’s net satisfaction rating is -67. The concept of being politically homeless is discussed more than it’s measured, but numbers like these are entirely consistent with it.

This environment of both dissatisfaction with the main parties and the salience of Brexit among issues, might seem like a favourable one for the Lib Dems and Brexit Party. Their combined share of about 35% is indeed substantial, though not yet a total realignment.

The chances of a realignment on the Leave side of the debate seem to have receded for the time being, with the Conservatives back well ahead of the Brexit Party. But Labour and the Lib Dems remain close, with some pollsters putting them neck-and-neck.

What effect has the Lib Dem revoke policy had? Despite much commentary to the effect that it represented – it was argued – a poor risk versus return, there is as yet no evidence that it has backfired, with the Europhiles polling slightly better than immediately beforehand.

And while May’s European elections and the campaign polarised opinion around the European question, the Lib Dems have held on to their gains. How this plays out in an election campaign is hard to predict, but there are warning signs for Labour.

In 2017, the opposition party was very successful in shifting the debate away from Brexit –and on to domestic policy, allowing it to appeal both to Remainers and Leavers. That may be harder to do in the current context, than it was in 2017 when many (wrongly) saw Brexit as done and dusted. Labour increasingly runs the risk of been seen as pro-Brexit by Remainers and anti-Brexit by Leavers.

Could conference season, including Boris Johnson’s speech, or indeed any of the other newsflow, yet move the dial? Possibly. But events yet to come, and particularly those in the next thirty days, probably matter a lot more.

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Matt Singh is the founder of Number Cruncher Analytics