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Analysing the best PM polling – is it as good for Theresa as it appears?

January 15th, 2017

Graphic: The most recent YouGov polling on who would make the best PM

It has become a regular occurrence.  At least once a month, YouGov release an opinion poll.  Each recent month, the Conservatives have recorded a very comfortable lead over Labour.  And each month, Theresa May has recorded an enormous lead over Jeremy Corbyn in the public’s assessment of who would be the best Prime Minister.  This has widely been taken to mean that the Conservatives’ position is even stronger than the headline polling suggests, given the quasi-presidential nature of the modern British politics. Is that true?

First things first, this is not generally thought to be the most reliable measure of a party leader’s standing.  The Prime Minister has the institutional advantage of actually being in the job, making it easy for the public to imagine them in the role.  For example, Gordon Brown still led by this measure in early 2008, well after the botched election that never was that was widely thought to have punctured his credibility.  But it’s worth looking at because it in part reflects the institutional advantages that any government has over the opposition.

When Theresa May took over as Prime Minister, the initial split on this measure when YouGov first polled in July 2016 was May 52% Corbyn 19% Don’t Know 30%.  In the most recent YouGov poll earlier this month, this had moved to May 47% Corbyn 14% Don’t know 39%.

It is perhaps not surprising that Theresa May has lost some of her early support – it is usual for the gloss to come off honeymoons slowly – but Jeremy Corbyn, far from profiting, has seen his own position deteriorate.  So both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have lost supporters to “Don’t Know” at an equal rate over this period.

There has been much chortling among Conservative supporters about Jeremy Corbyn being outpolled by “Don’t Know” but this is not in fact unusual for a party leader.  In five years of YouGov’s polling, Ed Miliband never beat “Don’t Know” once (though he came within one percentage point twice).  David Cameron also spent most of the last Parliament lagging behind “Don’t Know”, after 2011 only clearly overtaking it in the last two months of polling.

Nor is Jeremy Corbyn’s 14% unprecedentedly low.  YouGov have been polling on this question since 2003 and Iain Duncan Smith twice recorded 14% on this measure, regularly lagging behind Charles Kennedy in third place.  This, however, is not perhaps a comforting example for Mr Corbyn’s supporters.

Two main things stand out about the party leaders’ respective standings on this measure.  First, Theresa May is polling at historically high levels.  It is rare for either party’s leader to poll in the 40s with YouGov, never mind the 50s.  The Conservatives can indeed be quite pleased about this.

Secondly and in my view more importantly, the “Don’t Know” levels are surprisingly high. They are not unprecedentedly high and indeed throughout the last Parliament they quite regularly topped 40%.  However, if conventional political wisdom is to be believed, Jeremy Corbyn is out of his depth, a joke and far too extreme for the British public.  Yet nearly 40% find themselves unable to give a preference for Theresa May, presumably finding this a difficult choice.  Considering this is a relative judgement not an absolute judgement, this suggests either that conventional wisdom is writing Jeremy Corbyn off too quickly or that Theresa May has so far failed to particularly impress large chunks of the public even when measured against a very undemanding target.  Since Jeremy Corbyn is only persuading 14% of the public of his relative merits, I lean towards the latter explanation.

YouGov’s approach is not the only measure of leadership popularity.  Ipsos MORI in particular have polled on satisfaction ratings for many years.  And on this measure also Theresa May’s figures, while good, are not that amazing for a newly-installed Prime Minister.  David Cameron, for example, had higher satisfaction ratings in his first few months in office (only coming to an end at the time of the university tuition fees saga).  Given the exceptionally weak opposition that she faces, she might have hoped to have been doing better still during her political honeymoon.

As the public are getting to know her, her net satisfaction ratings – as is to be expected – are starting to decline.  Those who previously gave her the benefit of the doubt while they were making their minds up have now decided to give her the thumbs down.  This decline will probably continue.

As always, you can look at the polls and see what you want to see.  But as I hope I have demonstrated, there is at least the possibility that Theresa May’s poll ratings flatter to deceive.  She’s safe enough while she’s faced with a useless opponent.  If she finds herself up against someone more competent, she might find herself struggling far more quickly than most pundits currently could imagine.

Alastair Meeks