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It’s been a whirlwind year in British politics. At the start of 2022, the Conservatives seemed to be clawing their way back from the polling collapse triggered by the Partygate scandal, reducing Keir Starmer’s lead from 8pts in January to 4pts in March. Boris Johnson’s approval rating was creeping back up, the public were lukewarm about Starmer, and the Tories had a ready-made popular successor in Rishi Sunak if Johnson ultimately had to quit. The future seemed hopeful for the party.
Then it all unravelled. Johnson and Rishi Sunak were fined, the government’s budget was received astoundingly poorly (denting Sunak’s once-phenomenal popularity) and the Tories experienced disastrous local and by-election results. Enough was enough. Tory MPs dumped Johnson, but party members elevated Liz Truss to No 10, beating a now-unpopular Sunak. Within weeks she was gone, after triggering the greatest Tory poll meltdown since the 1990s. Sunak, swooping in unopposed, took over. The chaos ended.
But as we finish the year, Sunak’s mediocre approval ratings (though vastly superior to those of Truss) have not translated into good polling for the Tories. And prospects for another Tory victory are slim. So let’s look at the numbers from this year and see what effect all these events have had.
GB voting intention (and seat estimates)
As 2022 began, prospects for Labour looked promising – if not exceptional. The party’s average lead over the Conservatives was 8pts, a big swing since 2019 but still far short of the lead needed for an overall majority. What’s more, it began to melt away as quickly as the winter snow – by March the party led by only 4pts (39% to 35%). This, again, was far short of what was needed for a majority.
Then the fines for Johnson and Sunak happened, the pair introduced an unpopular budget, and Johnson led the Tories to terrible local election results. From then on, Labour’s lead held firm and even rose to 9pts following the resignation of Johnson. Then came Truss’s election, her mini-budget, and all the chaos surrounding both events. Labour’s lead quickly leapt up, reaching an average of 28pts – with the party’s support rising to an absolute majority (52%) of voters.
This put Labour decisively in majority territory, with polls in October pointing to a mega-landslide Labour majority, with Labour on 535 seats and the Tories on just 13 seats (under current boundaries).
Sunak’s election dampened Labour’s surge slightly, but the party still led by 20pts in December – enough to give Starmer a landslide majority of 300 seats under the new Parliamentary constituency boundaries. The map below (excluding Orkney and Shetland) shows what this would like if repeated at an election.
Best Prime Minister
But despite Labour’s enduring big lead over the Conservatives in polls, Sunak remains neck-and-neck with Starmer in polls that ask who the ‘Best PM’ would be (a measure considered highly predictive of the next election).
As Partygate intensified in late 2021, Starmer drew ahead of Johnson on this measure, extending his lead to 9pts by January 2022. As with voting intention, his support then dipped (Johnson was tied by March) but surged again following Johnson’s fine. By the time Truss departed, Starmer led in Best PM polling by 32pts – the biggest lead for a Labour leader since September 2007.
But after Sunak ascended to office, the numbers shifted quickly. Starmer finished the year with a lead of just 3pts, a far cry from the 13pt lead over Johnson in July and the 32pt lead over Truss in October. But still, it’s very uncommon for a Labour leader to be ahead of a Tory PM on this question by any margin: neither Corbyn nor Miliband ever led on average.
Amongst the many “accomplishments” of Liz Truss was one she probably never expected: she managed to make Keir Starmer look good. From March 2021 onwards, the Labour leader had a net negative approval rating (meaning “disapprove” was higher than “approve”). Even after Johnson’s resignation, Starmer’s net approval was still poor (30% approve, 41% disapprove).
After Truss’s reign began, however, voters suddenly decided that Starmer wasn’t so bad after all. His net approval rocketed up, reaching +7 in November, and ending the year on +1. Whilst this is not an enormously positive figure (he peaked at +17 in June 2020), it’s still the first consistent positive rating for him since early 2021. And considering that Corbyn’s net approval fell as low as -51 in June 2019, many in Labour will likely be happy with a +1 rating.
As for Sunak, his approval ratings are an improvement on the abysmal performances of Johnson and Truss – but they aren’t great. He ended the year with a net rating of -9, and whilst this is much better than the -58 result achieved by Truss, it is definitively worse than Starmer.
So in summary, at the end of December 2022:
⚫ Labour enjoyed a poll lead of 20pts, enough for an overall majority of 300 seats
⚫ Starmer led Sunak by 3pts in ‘Best Prime Minister’ polling
⚫ Starmer enjoyed a net approval rating of +1, compared to Sunak’s net rating of -9
All of this indicates that if an election was held next week, Labour would win handily. But whether Labour can keep this momentum going until 2024 remains an open question. In May, a series of local and Mayoral elections will give us a good guide as to how Labour’s poll leads translate into election results. I’ll be covering those in detail, so keep an eye out.
But if I were to speculate, I’d say it’s difficult to see a path back to victory for Sunak and the Tories. Voters kept giving them the benefit of the doubt over and over again – with Brexit, the economy, Partygate and Boris Johnson. But after Truss crashed the economy and quit after 45 days, it seems to me that voters have lost patience with the Conservatives. 83% of Brits now think that the party is running the NHS poorly, and 65% disapprove of the government more broadly. These are not promising numbers for the Tories.
Sometimes voters just get exhausted by a party, especially if that party is as useless and incompetent as the Tories have been. It’s easy to say anyone could win against the Tories right now, and I agree – but that doesn’t change the fact that the 2024 election is currently Keir Starmer’s to lose.