OPINION7 June 2021

Why Boris Johnson walks on water and why he should be worried

Brexit Covid-19 Opinion UK

Chris Harvey reflects on how the prime minister has connected with the public and highlights three areas that dampen his popularity. 

Downing street government crop

In the May 2021 local and mayoral elections, Boris Johnson and his Conservative party strengthened their grip on power, winning 63 councils in England, including an additional 294 seats.

While the success of the vaccine rollout and the timing of the elections undoubtedly played a large part in this victory, there is another, arguably bigger factor which helps to explain Johnson’s consistent ability to rally many – English, at least – voters behind him: his personality.

So how, specifically, has Johnson connected so well with such a large proportion of the public, particularly given the ups – and arguably much more frequent downs – of the government’s performance throughout the pandemic? And crucially, can his personality always be relied on as a significant vote winner for the Conservative party?

Below are three personality driven explanations for the successes Johnson has had at the polls to date:   

  1. Likeability: Even around the peak of the second Covid-19 wave in early 2021, Johnson was liked by more than a third of the UK public (YouGov, Q1 2021 ). While this doesn’t sound especially high, it was significantly higher than the equivalent rating for the Labour leader, Keir Starmer – and only slightly lower than the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, whose furlough scheme has contributed over $60bn to protecting jobs. Johnson’s likeability has likely benefited in part, particularly over the course of the pandemic, from the familiarity principle [ 1 ], which describes how people tend to develop preferences merely through increased familiarity. This is all important because behavioural science research reveals we are more likely to follow the lead from those we like[ 2 ]. 
  1. Similarity: Second, whether through his money problems, or his well-publicised health objective to ‘shed the pounds’, Boris Johnson has successfully managed to appear similar to a good proportion of the voting public. Why is this important? Research suggests that people are more likely to act on information delivered by people with similar characteristics[ 3 ] to them. Those from lower socio-economic groups are also most sensitive of all to the perceived similarity of the deliverer. Similarity is therefore likely a key reason why Johnson has done especially well with lower income voters.
  1. Consistency: Finally, for all the government U-turns taken during the course of the pandemic, over the past few years Johnson has remained remarkably consistent on the other big defining issue of the day – Brexit. The ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan was reported to be the key reason behind the Conservatives’ 2019 election victory, and even during the pandemic, Johnson’s consistent commitment to Brexit has been clear. Academic research validates the strong impact that a consistent message has on the actions we ultimately take[ 4 ] , and with regard to the Brexit slogan, even Johnson’s biggest critics have to acknowledge his clear commitment to ‘saying the same thing in many different situations’.   

However, while the above are successful personality factors, below are three other such factors that could get Johnson into trouble in the future:

  1. Trustworthiness: Even just before the recent local elections victory, Johnson was seen as significantly less trustworthy than the Labour leader (Ipsos Mori Political Monitor, April 2021 ). A key condition necessary for trust is reciprocity, and Johnson is well aware that if voters (particularly those in ‘red wall’ seats) do not, in time, feel they are being rewarded for their loyalty, they will have no qualms about switching sides at the next set of elections.
  1. Over-confidence: While Johnson was clearly hugely affected at the time by his hospital treatment for Covid-19, his inherent self-confidence has since returned – and has arguably been bolstered further in the face of a divided Labour party. However, with significantly more of the public saying Johnson is incompetent than saying he is competent (YouGov, May 2021 ), he needs to ensure he doesn’t mistakenly attribute much of the public’s sympathy for his plight for high levels of confidence in his abilities.
  1. Self-discipline: Lastly, Johnson’s non-attendance at five emergency Cobra meetings prior to the pandemic has been widely reported – and widely criticised. While the ‘rally round the flag effect’[ 5 ] has helped to ensure increased support for him and the government during these difficult times, this is a trait the public may become less forgiving of once the time of crisis has passed.

Johnson is currently riding high in the polls, thanks in no small part to his personality. However, as the saying goes, “a week is a long time in politics”, and he would do well to focus as much on aspects of his personality that could pull him down as those which clearly do him so many favours.

Chris Harvey is founder at Activate Research 


 [ 1 ] Zajonc, R.B. ( 1968 ). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1-27.

 [ 2 ] Cialdini, R. ( 2007 ). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (revised ed.). New York: HarperBusiness.

 [ 3 ] Durantini, M., Albarrac?n, D., Mitchell, A., Earl, A., & Gillette, J. ( 2006 ). Conceptualizing the influence of social agents of behavior change: A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of HIV-prevention interventionists for different groups. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 212–248.

 [ 4 ] Lewis, M. ( 2007 ). States of reason: Freedom responsibility and the governing of behaviour change. London: IPPR.

 [ 5 ] Goldstein, J.S., & Pevehouse, J.C. ( 2008 ). International Relations: Eighth Edition. New York: Pearson Longman.