Home > News > What do British voters think of their new prime minister?
201 views 9 min 0 Comment

What do British voters think of their new prime minister?

Here’s why the new Brexit Party may be a threat.

The British Conservative Party has just announced that its new leader is Boris Johnson. As leader of the governing party, Johnson automatically becomes prime minister. However, he faces extraordinary challenges — finalizing Brexit, reviving the flagging electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party and rebuffing the widespread public perception that he is an incompetent leader.

We conducted a national survey shortly after the May 23 European Parliament elections. Its results provide a sense of the challenges that Britain’s new prime minister faces.

Brexit — and perhaps an early election — are immediate challenges

Johnson was a major player in the “Leave” campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum, and he promised in his leadership campaign that he would take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, “do or die, by Oct. 31. The E.U. set the October 2019 deadline after Parliament had repeatedly rejected the deal that Prime Minister Theresa May had negotiated.

Johnson has said that, if necessary, he will do a “no deal” Brexit — which means crashing out of the E.U. with no agreement about future trade or other relations. Although he claims that the likelihood of such an outcome is “one in a million,” supporters of “Remain” — nearly half the U.K. electorate — view the possibility with alarm. Remainers in Parliament, including 30-plus pro-E. U. rebel Conservative members, are attempting to keep Johnson from implementing Brexit, let alone walking away in a no-deal departure. A general election this autumn is a real possibility.

The recent European Parliament elections suggest that Britain’s Conservatives may be in trouble in a general election. The Brexit issue dominated the European Parliament vote, resulting in a surprising victory by Nigel Farage’s new pro-Leave Brexit Party, with 30.5 percent of the U.K.-wide vote. Two pro-Remain minor parties, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, also performed very well.

The new European Parliament will balance dramatically different ideologies and interests

However, the Conservatives, like Labour, fared poorly. Running fifth with just an 8.8 percent vote share, the Conservatives suffered their worst performance ever in a national election. Anticipating disaster, May resigned as party leader shortly before the results were announced.

People are unhappy with the Conservative Party

Johnson needs broad public support if he is going to achieve Brexit and, if necessary, win an election. He may not be “likable” enough, our survey results and the figure below suggest. Although he won his party leadership vote in a landslide, he was chosen by Conservative Party members — a small and very unrepresentative segment of the voting public.

The toxic Brexit debate and May’s inability to get parliamentary support for her deal with the E.U. have cost the Conservatives dearly. Over 70 percent of our survey respondents were dissatisfied with the government’s performance, and an equally large number felt the government has been dishonest and untrustworthy.

Feelings about Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage
by attitudes towards E.U. membership. Tabulated on a scale of 0 (strongly dislike) to 10 (strongly like). Source: 2019 Essex-UTD post-EU Parliament Election survey.
Feelings about Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage
by attitudes towards E.U. membership. Tabulated on a scale of 0 (strongly dislike) to 10 (strongly like). Source: 2019 Essex-UTD post-EU Parliament Election survey.

The survey data also indicate that Johnson may not have enough public support to silence the rebels in his party and, if necessary, win a general election. His average score on a 0 (strongly dislike) to 10 (strongly like) scale is 4.3, just marginally greater than that for his widely criticized predecessor Theresa May (4.2).

The good news for Johnson is that Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is even less likable, with a score of only 3.3. An old-school socialist who views the European Union as a tool of global capitalism, Corbyn has taken a studiously ambiguous line on Brexit, frustrating Leavers and Remainers alike. If Johnson ends up running against the decidedly unpopular Corbyn in a general election, the Tory leader will have a better chance of winning.

How do U.K. voters feel now about the E.U.? Here’s what our survey found.

The public is split on Boris Johnson

Johnson’s popularity varies widely between Leavers and Remainers. These are two large groups — in our survey 44 percent disapproved of E.U. membership while 45 percent approved. Johnson’s average score in the pro-E. U. group is a dismal 3.0, but in the pro-Leave group he scored 5.7.

Corbyn and Farage also get very different popularity ratings from Leavers and Remainers. Corbyn is considerably more popular among Remainers than Leavers, while Farage is much more well liked by Leavers than Remainers. These results suggest Johnson would face stiff competition for the Leave vote in a general election should he fail to reach an accommodation with the Brexit Party leader.

The danger Farage poses to Johnson is reinforced by data on leader competence. Some successful leaders — Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. and Stephen Harper in Canada are prominent examples — managed to offset their unpopularity with perceptions that they are best suited to do the job.

But our survey respondents don’t see Johnson as one of those leaders, as the figure below shows. Instead, nearly 3 in 5 (58 percent) believe he is incompetent. Although he fares better than May (65 percent think she is incompetent), respondents judge Farage more kindly — “only” 50 percent say the Brexit Party leader lacks competence. More encouraging for Johnson, fully two voters in three think Jeremy Corbyn is not fit for purpose. Whether polls showing public dissatisfaction with his Labour rival will embolden the new Conservative leader to call an early election remains to be seen.

Are Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage competent?  Source: 2019 Essex-UTD post-EU Parliament Election Survey.
Are Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage competent? Source: 2019 Essex-UTD post-EU Parliament Election Survey.

The Brexit Party may be a big threat

Boris Johnson has become Conservative leader and prime minister in the middle of the “Battle of Brexit,” which has polarized his party and the United Kingdom as a whole. In a general election, Nigel Farage and the new Brexit Party could be a major threat.

The Brexit Party’s success in the recent European Parliament election has shown it can attract large numbers of pro-Leave voters who otherwise would be Conservative supporters. More generally, Johnson’s ability to win an election and govern effectively may be adversely affected by the fact that many people harbor reservations about his competence and have negative or, at best, lukewarm feelings about their new prime minister. Perhaps most important, Johnson’s limited public support may seriously hamper his attempts to secure a widely acceptable exit from the European Union and repair the deep divisions caused by the corrosive Brexit controversy.

Harold Clarke is Ashbel Smith professor at the School of Economic Political and Policy Sciences of the University of Texas at Dallas.

Marianne Stewart is a professor at the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences of the University of Texas at Dallas.

Paul Whiteley is professor in the Department of Government at the University of Essex.