End of the honeymoon for Johnson? Polls narrow as ‘vaccine bounce’ subsides

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Polling is a tricky business, and forecasts often prove wrong. That means we should take the widening or narrowing of gaps between Labour and the Conservatives with a pinch of salt. But, over the past week, YouGov, Survation, Redfield and Wilton and Deltapoll have all reported a noteworthy shift. The gap between Labour and the Tories has started to close across all major pollsters, with the exception of Opinium.

Survation reported that the 11-point Tory lead had reduced to two within a fortnight. Last week, YouGov recorded a fall in the Conservative lead from 13 points to four. Between July 19th and 25th, the gap between Labour and the Tories more than halved to four points according to Redfield & Wilton. And Deltapoll shows the Tory lead being trimmed down from 12 points in June to five on July 26th.

Favourability ratings for both the parties and their respective leaders have also narrowed. According to Survation, Tory net favourability stands at -9%, down nine points on July 19th. For Labour, net favourability increased by nine points to -1%. Keir Starmer’s favourability rating increased by 12 points to reach -2%, while over the same period Boris Johnson’s rose three points to -10%. Redfield & Wilton recorded its lowest ever net approval rating for the Prime Minister (it began asking the question in March 2020) at -15%. This represented a decrease of 14 points on last week. The pollster also has Starmer’s net approval rating on -15%, down two points.

Why is the gap closing? It could be the end of the famous ‘vaccine bounce’. As Opinium’s Chris Curtis points out, if the Tory lead has been largely a result of the rollout, the lead would therefore fall away as the vaccine is bumped from the top spot on the news cycle. This could mean Johnson waving goodbye to the last of a couple of unnatural boosts to support for his premiership: the rallying round the flag seen in 2020 when crisis struck and the vaccine bounce this year. Notably, each has little to do with his own competence. If they are behind us, it could signal the end of an inflated Tory lead in the polls.

Attempts Johnson and Rishi Sunak to avoid lockdown after being contacted by test and trace could also have been weighing on the minds of survey respondents. The pair were told to isolate after having contact with Sajid Javid, who tested positive, but Downing Street instead reported that the Chancellor and PM had been selected for a trial allowing them not to do so, as long as they took daily tests. Following a public outcry, they performed a lightning fast U-turn (just before so-called ‘freedom day’). The attempt to escape isolation rules, while so many people are caught up in the ‘pingdemic’ and media coverage is increasingly focused on the phenomenon, may be tipping the scales against the Tories.

Attention more generally has shifted way from vaccination over the past month or so and towards unlocking from Covid, freedom day and its implications for the recovery. Polling ahead of July 19th showed a disparity between the government’s relaxation of almost all Covid rules and what the public thought best to keep the virus at bay. Just a week before July 19th, Opinium found that 50% of the public thought the unlocking date should have been pushed back and 73% felt masks should still be compulsory on public transport. Just three days before, 55% of respondents told YouGov that lifting almost all restrictions in England was the wrong thing to do. Another YouGov poll earlier in the month found 71% of people supported mandatory face masks on public transport.

It looks like the factors above have come together to form a general, worsening impression of the Tories and Johnson. The Conservative leader threw off a more cautious tone, adopted earlier this year when he unveiled the ‘roadmap’ out of Covid, in exchange for ‘freedom day’ rhetoric. Intense, negative focus was then cast on him and Sunak shortly before this date with their isolation debacle. And, as the jab rollout has stopped taking up so much media coverage, the vaccine bounce is no longer there to obscure the fact that Johnson’s Covid policy preferences clash with those of the public.

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