30 January 2024

Would a leadership change improve the Conservatives’ fortunes?

By Keiran Pedley

Last week was bruising for Rishi Sunak. From clashing with a voter over the NHS to a direct challenge to his authority from Simon Clarke, the Prime Minister has had to fight fires at a time when he really needs to be on the front foot as he seeks an improbable political comeback this year. 

It is now clear that there are people in the Conservative Party who believe a change in leadership is needed for any comeback to be possible – but what do the numbers say?

In many ways Sunak’s critics have a point. The Prime Minister is unpopular and his scores have been getting worse. Our latest Ipsos Political Pulse shows that 53% of the public have an unfavourable view of him. Just 24% are favourable. His ratings have worsened since the beginning of 2023, where 30% were favourable and 39% were unfavourable. 

His net satisfaction rating as Prime Minister was -48 in December, similar to Boris Johnson’s -45 in July 2022 and the -51 registered by Liz Truss in October 2022. Jeremy Corbyn recorded -44 as Labour leader in December 2019. Not only is Sunak in unwelcome company in how his personal poll ratings compare to his predecessors but 7 in 10 Britons now tell Ipsos they think it is unlikely he will win the next General Election too.

What’s gone wrong? Two things define Prime Ministers: personality and delivery. On personality, 73% told Ipsos in September last year they think Rishi Sunak is ‘out of touch with ordinary people’. Boris Johnson’s highest score on this measure was 63%, Theresa May’s 66% and David Cameron’s 70%. So, whilst not uncommon for Conservative leaders to be seen as out of touch, Sunak’s numbers are on the high side historically.

Conservative Prime Ministers can get away with this if they are seen as competent and delivering for the public. After all, each of Sunak’s predecessors mentioned won General Elections. The problem for Sunak is he trails Keir Starmer on who is seen as the most capable leader (35% to 26%) and he isn’t seen as delivering either. Last December, we found that 80% think Sunak’s government is doing a bad job improving the NHS, 79% on managing immigration, 77% on dealing with the cost of living and 68% on managing the economy. The issue of immigration, as we know, is particularly important to Conservative voters.

If Rishi Sunak’s personal poll ratings are historically weak, getting worse and his government is not seen as delivering on what voters want, then it is reasonable to ask if someone else might do better. However, there are three reasons to doubt that a leadership change would significantly improve the Conservatives’ fortunes.

First, the Conservatives must face the reality that changing leader does not happen in a vacuum. A leadership change now would mean a fourth Conservative Prime Minister in less than two years. For all of Sunak’s weaknesses as a candidate today, the public are likely to take a dim view of yet another Conservative leadership race. A protracted contest now is unlikely to improve the Conservative Party brand in the short term and any successor would have little time to try to do so themselves.

Second, it is not immediately clear who the alternative leader is who could change the party’s fortunes quickly. Ipsos polling shows most potential frontrunners are either relatively unknown (Kemi Badenoch) or unpopular (Suella Braverman). Meanwhile, Ipsos data shows 2019 Conservatives are no more favourable towards Boris Johnson than they are Rishi Sunak. There is no obvious saviour waiting in the wings.

Thirdly (and most importantly) whatever the potential qualities of a hypothetical new leader there are political realities they cannot wish away. The public mood is negative, with 6 in 10 consistently saying they think things in Britain are heading in the wrong direction. There is deep and lasting public concern over the economy, cost of living, and immigration. A staggering 78% tell us that they think Britain’s public services have got worse in the last 5 years. The public lack confidence that the Conservatives can fix these problems. It might be too late for a new leader to come in and just say they will. Conservatives are at the point where they need to show not tell. 

In truth, the Conservatives’ problems didn’t start when Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister. Ipsos have consistently shown at least half of the public as unfavourable towards the Conservative Party since early 2022. There is plenty of evidence that Sunak himself is unpopular but no certainty that a change in leader would improve the party’s fortunes. A sustained period of effective delivery is probably the Conservatives’ best bet for a recovery – whether or not they can deliver that is another question entirely.  

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Keiran Pedley is Director of Politics at Ipsos.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.