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One Battle Boris Johnson Is Clearly Winning

Matt Singh

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As recently as a few weeks ago, it seemed as though U.K. politics could not possibly talk about anything besides Brexit, even after the country’s formal departure from the EU. Business as usual was expected to return at some unspecified point in the future.

As elsewhere, the coronavirus has turned British politics on its head. Unlike Brexit, which continues to divide opinion fairly evenly, the coronavirus crisis has prompted an outbreak of recently unfamiliar unity. Number Cruncher polling (excusive to Bloomberg) finds personal ratings for Boris Johnson -- himself now diagnosed with coronavirus -- that have not been seen for a British Prime Minister since the early days of Tony Blair’s premiership in 1997.

Fully 72% of eligible voters are satisfied with Johnson’s performance as Prime Minister, with 25% dissatisfied. Ninety-one per cent of those currently supporting the Conservatives count themselves as satisfied, along with about half of Labour voters and those voting for other parties and a large majority of undecided voters. Johnson’s government gets similar approval ratings, both overall (73% to 24%) and on its handling of the Coronavirus outbreak (72% to 25%).

The 1,010 interviews were conducted Tuesday through Thursday, following Johnson’s televised address on Monday, but completed before Johnson himself revealed that he had tested positive for the virus. There is some evidence in our data to suggest that these figures were higher in the immediate aftermath of the pre-recorded broadcast, which was watched by around half of the adult population.

The strongest numbers of all are for the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (77% satisfaction). Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose successor will be named on April 4, remains in negative territory (with 54% dissatisfied).

While wartime metaphors are now commonplace, this pandemic is not, of course, a war in literal sense -- people are being killed by a disease, not each other. But it does share many of the same characteristics and a similar “rally around the flag” sense. The most obvious of these is the unity against a common enemy, with a lot of agreement across parties and across the public. There is also clear sense of “national effort,” and some extremely large government spending on its way.

That’s not to say that there have been no controversies — there have been debates over strategy and the policy response — though these can easily be drowned out by the enormity of the wider situation.

This is not unique to the U.K. Polling elsewhere has shown that the crisis has helped incumbents in other countries too. Emmanuel Macron in France, Italy’s Giuseppe Conte and Canada’s Justin Trudeau have also seen their ratings improve. Even in the strongly polarized U.S., Donald Trump’s approval ratings have seen gains.

But what is specific to the U.K. is the perfect storm providing the tailwind to the Conservatives. The post-election bounce for Johnson and his party was still very much in evidence when the coronavirus became the dominant story, and was likely boosted by Brexit on Jan. 31st. Labour has been less visible than it might normally be, and when it is visible it’s via its unpopular leader, who remains in place more than three months after his election defeat.

Coupled with the rally-round-the-flag effect, it is not hard to see why records are being broken. Of likely voters, 54% would choose Conservatives, up nine points from the December election (excluding Northern Ireland). No Conservative government has ever had such a strong poll rating, according to records compiled by author Mark Pack beginning in 1943.

Labour has dropped five points to 28%, giving the Tories their biggest lead while in office since Margaret Thatcher’s peak during the Falklands war in 1982. The Liberal Democrats — who this week postponed their leadership election until 2021 — also fall five points to 7%.

Of course, no U.K. election is imminent, with even the local elections scheduled for May having been postponed until next year. What’s more, being hugely popular in a war or war-like situation can still end in electoral defeat, as it did for Winston Churchill and George H.W. Bush. And that’s before we consider likely economic damage of the coronavirus, which is in the very early stages of being felt.

But these numbers are significant for another reason. The immediate task for Johnson and other leaders is to convince their citizens to comply with personal restrictions that would be unthinkable in normal times. Irrespective of the wider politics, having the public united behind him can only help. For now, the U.K. feels strangely united.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matt Singh runs Number Cruncher Politics, a nonpartisan polling and elections site that predicted the 2015 U.K. election polling failure.

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