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How long can May’s honeymoon period go on?

January 7th, 2017

theresa-may

Most other mid-term boosts have dissolved after 6 months

If the five years of this parliament were compressed into the space of a football match, we’d have only just reached the half-hour mark. It feels like longer, though that might be because there’s been a lot packed in: six leadership elections across the four main parties, a change of PM, an historic referendum, and Labour’s biggest crisis since at least the early 1980s.

In the normal scheme of things, Labour should be comfortably ahead by now. Mid-terms are nearly always hard for governments, as they try to implement the detail of their reforms, as the lustre of election victory fades and as internal disputes tend to become more heated away from the discipline-inducing election years.

This should be no different. Politics is Brexit and on that, as Sir Ivan Rogers has helpfully noted, the government is at best keeping its cards extremely close to its chest and at worst, paralysed by division and indecision. Contradictions abound among what ministers have said. A good opposition would be making hay.

This is not, however, a good opposition. Corbyn is improving at PMQs but as Hague could advise, you can be excellent at that and it won’t cut any ice with the public. In terms of getting their agenda into the news and scoring hits on the government that the public notice, it’s completely failing.

Some might argue that although this is in terms of the parliamentary cycle the mid-term, the change of PM means that the Conservatives are still effectively in their honeymoon period and that the polls will move accordingly. Yes and no.

One reason that the polls have been resilient might well be that the government has been so guarded about its Brexit policy and has therefore not yet upset one side or the other (bar last-ditch remainers). That can’t last. Within three months, Article 50 will be triggered (assuming the courts or parliament don’t unexpectedly get in the way), and the battle will really begin.

All the same, Theresa May shouldn’t still be in her honeymoon period. She’s only the third PM to take over mid-term in the last 40 years so there isn’t that much comparative data but it’s notable that six months after John Major took over, Labour was six points ahead in the polls; a better for the Tories than during Thatcher’s last days but still a swing of some 8% from the post-change peak.

Similarly, in 2007, the Conservatives were 10 points ahead six months after Brown moved into No 10, a swing of no less than 10% from Labour’s high point.

By contrast, what’s remarkable about this handover is that there isn’t a peak, just a generally steady plateau; one which we’re still on. Until now, the peak in support for a party after either a mid-term prime ministerial change or a general election win usually comes within 3 months of the event. Here, the gap is as wide as ever after double that.

Can she go on defying gravity in this way? As mentioned, that depends in part on how the Brexit negotiations go, once they’re underway. After all, there are more than two parties out there and if the Tories’ ratings do suffer as a result, you’d expect the Lib Dems and UKIP to pick up some support if Labour can’t.

Or if Theresa May’s own ratings suffer. Although down on her best, she still scored a net approval rating of +16 in the final YouGov poll of 2016. As a rule of thumb, a politician is usually doing well to be above -20 given that most people will oppose their party and there’ll always be some internal critics. Time and events will erode her score to something more normal.

But not straight away, unless she makes a catastrophic error on the scale of Major and the ERM or Brown and his non-election. She and her party should be good for a few months yet. That May election must be looking attractive at No 10.

David Herdson