OPINION3 November 2022

Polling and its role in the downfall of Liz Truss

Opinion Public Sector Trends UK

The end of Liz Truss’s administration owes a lot to the polling evidence, but the clear impact on the economy and public opinion left little room for expert views on the data, argues James Crouch.

In an era where experts seem to be ever more maligned, I am reticent about pointing out a scenario where they were not essential to the real-world impact that research had. But in the case of the fall of the Liz Truss government, I will make an exception.

While not without episodic controversies, the insatiable demand for evidence means political polling has become increasingly prominent in British political life. It now provides a near-real-time read on how the government is faring. How governments are doing tells us whether they will get re-elected, and thus who governs us next. In an increasingly volatile world, it is no wonder the need for public opinion research is greater than ever.

With that being the case, the interpretation of polling insights needs to be evermore nuanced. Who would have predicted the landslide 2019 general election result when only a matter of months before the Conservatives came a dire fourth in a nationwide election? Political polling is an incredibly useful tool, but it should not come without the insights, commentary, and caveats, of the experts that run these polls.

A good example of a point of polling contention is the supposed popularity of Boris Johnson. It is perfectly true that throughout his time in frontline politics he has not been a particularly popular figure. Nevertheless, in the 2019 election, despite a negative net approval rating, Boris Johnson had the solid support or tacit acceptance of roughly two-in-five people, which is all you need to win a general election.

This changed in the wake of ‘Partygate’. The huge level of anger, combined with a much smaller number of people willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, told us this was something different. The fact that his ratings had not really recovered any ground six months after they fell off a cliff told us that this was not a bad episode, but that he was damaged goods. As pollsters we provided the best interpretation of the evidence as we saw it, but MPs took time to come to the same conclusion that the data pointed to.

The polling of Liz Truss’s premiership was completely different. But at least experts had a role in telling the government that her politics was not exactly ‘vote winning’. While she talked about slashing taxes and “growth, growth, growth”, voters told us they were concerned about paying their bills and that taxes, even if high, should not change for the time being. If the mini-budget was the answer, it was to a question no-one was asking.

However, the reaction to the fallout from the mini-budget required little interpretation and almost no expertise to understand what it meant. The polling results were historically awful for the prime minister, the government as a whole and the Conservative Party.

Our first poll after the mini-budget showed Labour had shot up to a 19-point lead. Then 21 points. Then 27. Opinium’s polling methodology includes targeting adults with low political attention, who make up most of the electorate. When you start to see them responding at lightening speed to political events, you know something is happening.

Even without that caveat, I am not sure our frequent media commentary stating how unprecedented this all was really mattered. For once the evidence itself did all the talking. MPs, journalists, and everyone else around the political ecosystem could see that the Conservative Party’s brand was trashed, their reputation for economic credibility ruined and their electoral position dire. Did anyone really need an expert to tell them that?

The ending of Liz Truss’s administration owes a lot to the polling evidence that demonstrated the electoral cul-de-sac the government had driven down. But its impact was because there was little nuance and no need for us as interpreters to call attention to the salient facts. The data told its own story.

Fortunately, with barely two years to the next election, we regain our role monitoring Rishi Sunak’s return from the electoral brink and providing our interpretation of how successful he is.

James Crouch is head of public affairs and policy at Opinium