I don’t think John Major was more unpopular than Johnson

So I saw this tweet from the esteemed John Rentoul

and thought it worth pushing back a little. I remember the mid 1990s very well; they were a formative time for me politically, as I voted Conservative in 1992 and New Labour in 1997, I felt part of a very big movement indeed.

(obviously watch the event too)

And what I strongly remember was that while there was a gigantic movement against the Conservatives, politically, Major himself was generally regarded as OK. Much mocked, seen as weak, sure – but always seen as personally alright. But we are often reminded that even though Johnson has now hit a nadir (so far) of Minus 46, this is not as bad as Major reached.

What does the data say? Ipsos Mori has net approval data going waaay back that allows us to put this in context. First, let us look at the raw polling data for that time, and it is spectacular.

For years, pollsters had the Labour party consistently on OVER FIFTY, and the Tories regularly struggling to break 30. Now, we all know that the 1992 polls had badly exaggerated Labour’s chances, and people talked a lot of Shy Tories, so Conservatives felt they still had a chance. But these were spectacular leads, all the time. And they were reflected in the Government and Prime Minister approval ratings. In June 1993, 10% of respondents approved, and 84% disapproved, of the Government’s performance. The figures for Major himself were 19 and 74, so minus 55 (I think he hit a personal nadir just after Blair got to power, at minus 59).

But the government was consistently less popular than he was, on this measure. And although that is a normal pattern, Major’s popularity relative to his government’s was pretty good. Let’s see how he looks, compared to Cameron and then Johnson. All on one chart:

Dotted lines are the governments, solid lines the PMs. For true blue Major, there was always a pretty large gap. So, too, for Cameron most of the time. For Johnson, he enjoyed a giant gap at the beginning, when everyone appeared to hate the government but had hopes for the new guy …. but that appears to have disappeared by June 2020. And since then, the two have moved in lockstep.

Here, finally, is a slightly geekier way of seeing it. Taking the Tory lead over Labour on the horizontal, and PM net approval on the vertical, you can see that Johnson appears to have broken a recent pattern for the Conservatives of having more popular leaders than they are as a party. The big red triangle is the last reading.

I am not an expert like Rob Ford, Matthew Goodwin, Will Jennings et al, so I don’t know how enduring the switch of working class voters to the Conservatives is. And I don’t know what we can learn about how a leader taints a party from this. The worry for Conservatives is that rather than Johnson catching up with their (relative!) popularity as a party, the party catches up with his relative unpopularity instead …

My view? John Major was not more unpopular than Johnson. The only times he scored lower, the pollsters would have been hitting the same sampling errors that put Labour on 55-60% for voting intention. His party was off the scale unpopular, and that tainted him.

Published by freethinkingeconomist

I'm a mid 40s, former special adviser (Downing Street 2017-19, BIS from 2010-14), former FT leader writer and Lex Columnist, former financial dealer (?) at IG, student of economic history, PPE like the rest of them, etc. This blog has large gaps for obvious reasons. The name is dumb - the CentreForum think tank blog was called Freethink, I adapted that, we are stuck now.

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