The conventional wisdom on the polling is the Government is fast losing public support on its handling of the Coronavirus crisis – and therefore that the Government is handling the crisis badly in reality.
While it’s true that the polls have moved against the Government from the early days of the crisis when approval ratings were sky high, the story isn’t as simple as the public turning against the Government.
Interestingly, on individual policy announcements, for example the Northern lockdown, public support remains high. The public back the Government on specifics, but not in the round. So what’s happening?
Let’s begin by looking at the polling on general Government popularity measures. The picture is clear: the public has become less sympathetic over time.
- ConservativeHome’s newly released panel survey showed the PM’s popularity has slipped for the third month in a row.
- YouGov’s tracker on perceptions of the Government’s handling of the crisis has shown a steady decline since the Spring.
- Opinium’s tracker shows the same, with their most recent figures showing a net disapproval rating of -15. They also show a relatively narrow lead over Labour in the voting intention tracker.
- A new study by Ipsos-Mori and KCL revealed an array of metrics showing public concern about the way the pandemic has been handled.
But now let’s look at the data on individual policies.
- People appear to very strongly support the Government banning separate households meeting indoors in those parts of the country where the infection rate has risen.
- People appear to strongly support the Government’s announcement that those with Coronavirus symptoms should now self-quarantine for 10 days rather than seven.
- The majority of the public appears to be unsympathetic to those British people that went to Spain and got caught out by the demand to self-quarantine on their return – a decision for which the Government received enormous criticism.
- People also appear to support restaurants having to show calorie counts on their menus – a suggestion the Government was said to be considering as part of No 10’s new focus on obesity. (I actually think this would drop like a stone when faced with a counter argument on burdensome regulations during a pandemic, but that’s another conversation).
- The polls show the public support the requirement to wear masks in supermarkets and they want the supermarkets themselves to be tougher on compliance, presumably by refusing entry to those without masks or refusing service at the till.
- The use of face masks has surged dramatically more generally.
What accounts for these stark differences, where the Government is losing support but where the public actually back its main policy announcements? There are a number of reasons why this might be the case.
First, it’s possible the public actually still favour extremely tough measures overall – much tougher than the Government is prepared to take. It’s possible they still favour what amounts to a near full-lockdown and, therefore, the support they give to specific policies is almost given in exasperation – as if to say: “of course they should do this, why haven’t they done so before?”
I think this is very likely the case among older and more affluent people, where the mix of fear and an ability to work from home and maintain their living standards means they take a very safety first approach. It might still be the case for many others.
As I’ve written before, the Government’s reputation has also ultimately been perversely damaged by the huge success of the furlough scheme. The fact that it worked smoothly and held up most people’s earnings meant it acted like morphine; it made people think the pandemic was almost exclusively a health crisis, not an economic one.
It made many think that the lockdown was a perfectly acceptable way to spend several weeks – not something that was crippling the economy. As such, many people believed, and still do, that the lockdown should keep going indefinitely. Were they exposed to job losses and higher taxes, they’d likely change their minds on this quickly.
In summary, it’s possible the Government is being punished for opening up the country too early.
Second, it’s possible that the little minorities of people who oppose Government action on, say, increasing the quarantine, actually all mount up to a majority overall, which brings down Government support.
So, a significant minority in the North of England might be angry about the new lockdown there, while a significant minority of holidaymakers might be angry about the new quarantine demands, and so on. In the end, the angry and annoyed on one issue accumulate to a large number. It’s as if everyone’s annoyed, but for different reasons. There’s also clearly just generally a virus fatigue: “when will it ever end?”
Third, we have to look at the role of Government communications. The Government has been accused of giving out mixed messages in recent weeks – most recently, encouraging people to go to restaurants while also telling people to stay apart and wear masks, or encouraging people to go to restaurants while telling them to eat healthily.
The Government’s view appears to be that they need a degree of ambiguity – yes, to encourage people to return to some form of normality, while always reminding them to take care because the virus hasn’t gone away. I have sympathy with this because the medium-term future is so uncertain and because the Government is balancing outrageously complex and high-stakes issues.
In truth, no one really knows what’s going to happen. However, the fact remains that their messages and stated priorities can look contradictory – and this in turn can make them look disorganised, which in turn can eat into their reputation for competence.
Fourth, it looks like party politics is returning to the public mind slowly. The gaps between Conservative and Labour voters on questions of competence and general handling reveal huge differences in opinion.
In short, Labour voters think the Government has done a bad job, even if they give support to specific policy ideas, while Conservative voters are cutting the Government slack. If Starmer starts drawing a greater contrast between Conservative and Labour policies – most obviously over economic recovery policies – we should expect these differences to become starker.
Where will the polls go? It’s hard to say. If there’s another serious spike in cases and another health emergency develops, it’s possible that people will again rally behind the Government for doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances.
But I suspect, in reality, now people have become accustomed to the habits and language of the pandemic, and now Labour has a basically competent leader, that the Government’s approval ratings will return to where you’d expect a Government that has been in power for a long time to be – with a divided country and a very large number of disgruntled voters.