OPINION6 October 2021

There may be trouble ahead for the government

Brexit Covid-19 Opinion UK

It is not hard to find signs of discontent with the Conservatives, but can Labour take advantage? By Keiran Pedley.

downing street sign

As the prime minister steps up to speak at the Conservative party conference in Manchester, you could be forgiven for thinking he is somewhat politically bulletproof.

Despite the immense challenges of navigating Brexit and a once in a generation pandemic, the Conservatives have retained a stubborn poll lead, driven by strong approval ratings among those voting Conservative at the last general election.

Our latest Ipsos Mori Political Monitor shows seven in 10 Conservative voters from 2019 saying they are satisfied with the job Boris Johnson is doing as prime minister. Two-thirds of these voters believe the current government deserves to be re-elected and just 15% disagree. In short, it seems that if you voted Conservative in 2019, you are broadly happy with what you got.

Yet things are rarely that simple. Look closer and it is not hard to find signs of discontent. Three in 10 Conservative voters from 2019 are dissatisfied with how the government is running the country and when we dig deeper, we find significant levels of frustration with the government’s record among the public overall.

Ipsos Mori polling in August showed that while 87% of Britons think the government has done a good job managing the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, and more Britons think the government has done a good job managing the economy than bad, clear majorities think the government has done a bad job in other important areas.

Two-thirds think that the government has done a bad job improving the NHS ( 65%), while majorities think it has has done badly managing crime ( 58%), improving education ( 57%) and delivering on ‘levelling-up’ ( 55%). Majorities also think the government has done badly when it comes to handling race relations ( 56%) and Britain’s exit from the European Union, too ( 57%).

So, with clear majorities unhappy at several important aspects of the government’s record, a logical question follows: why isn’t Labour taking advantage in the polls?

The short answer is that while the public might not be much convinced by the current government, they currently appear even less convinced by the opposition. When asked whether Labour is ‘ready to form the next government’, our September Ipsos Mori Political Monitor, taken before party conference season, shows just one in four Britons agreeing that Labour is ready ( 25%), while 51% disagree.

This is not a new story. Since Labour was relegated to opposition in 2010, the party has been unable to get much more than one in three Britons to agree that it is ready to govern next time. This is regardless of whether the leader at the time was Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn or now Keir Starmer. In contrast, 55% thought Labour were ready for government in April 1997, shortly before Tony Blair’s landslide victory that summer.

Labour faces a myriad of problems convincing the public it is ready for office. Just 25% are favourable towards the party, similar to the 27% that were favourable just after the 2019 general election and a clear majority ( 56%) still see the party as divided. Just one in three think the party looks after the interests of ‘people like me’.

Meanwhile, Keir Starmer’s personal poll ratings, once equivalent to Blair’s in his opposition heyday, have fallen sharply. Just one in four ( 25%) are satisfied with the job Starmer is doing and half ( 50%) are dissatisfied. Put simply, the numbers do not point to an opposition heading for power if a general election was around the corner.

Of course, an election is not around the corner. There is still time for things to change. While public scepticism about Labour’s readiness for government is obvious, it is also obvious that there is also plenty of scepticism about the government.

In fact, when asked if the current Conservative government deserves re-election, overall just one in three Britons agree ( 32%) and almost half disagree ( 46%). This is before we head into what could be a tough winter for the government that may erode confidence further, with concerns around fuel, supply chains and Christmas shortages dominating the news cycle.

None of this means the opposition takes advantage. A Labour victory of any kind at the next general election looks a long shot. Yet if things go badly this winter, public opinion could turn sharply against the government. The question then becomes whether Labour benefits. Only time will tell.

Keiran Pedley is director of politics at Ipsos Mori