British Public Favours Johnson over Starmer on the Economy and Foreign Affairs

August 24, 2020
R&WS Research Team
Boris Johnson | International Relations | Keir Starmer | Relations with China | The Economy | UK Government | UK Politics

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In our latest polling in Great Britain, Redfield & Wilton Strategies compared public opinion of Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer, the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties, across issues which are likely to play a role in future elections.

Overall, as we reported in our weekly Great Britain voting intention poll, Johnson currently leads Starmer by 6% in a straight contest over who would be the best Prime Minister of the UK. 41% of the British public believe that Johnson would be the better Prime Minister for the United Kingdom, while 35% say Starmer would be. Notably, around a quarter (24%) don’t know who the better Prime Minister would be. 

Further comparison between the major party leaders provides some explanation for the Prime Minister’s overall lead. At this stage, Johnson scores well on economic issues and foreign policy concerns, while the public also think he is the leader who can get things done. Starmer is viewed as more honest, more willing to cooperate across parties, and is considered to be in better health.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson commands a clear lead over Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer when respondents are asked to select which party leader embodies characteristics that will benefit the UK on the international sphere. Overall, 45% of respondents believe Johnson is more likely to stand up for the interests of the United Kingdom, in comparison to less than a third (31%) who consider that Labour Leader Keir Starmer is more likely to do so. A clear majority (60%) of respondents aged 65 or over side with Johnson on this question, and so do a plurality (43%) of Londoners despite the capital’s overall Labour leaning tendencies.

Johnson also holds a significant lead over Starmer with regard to who respondents believe can work best with foreign leaders: 43% of the UK public say Johnson best embodies the characteristics of someone who can work with foreign leaders, while only 28% think Starmer does. So far, Starmer has had “little to say” on foreign, defence and security policy. Moreover, the recently elected Leader of the Opposition has had little opportunity to engage with foreign leaders, due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Government has toughened its stance towards China in recent months, in particular by suspending the extradition treaty with Hong Kong and extending the arms embargo to Hong Kong. Moreover, Johnson’s administration has announced that Huawei’s 5G kit must be removed from the UK’s infrastructure by 2027. As we reported last month, the UK public supports the Government’s current policies towards China. At this stage, 36% of the UK public believe Johnson best embodies the characteristics of someone who will be tough on China, whereas 21% think Starmer does. A plurality (44%) ‘don’t know’, which is a surprisingly high figure given the high-profile actions that the current Government has taken against Beijing. 

A slight plurality (39%) believes that Boris Johnson best understands the problems afflicting the United Kingdom, yet over a third (35%) think Keir Starmer does. In parallel with other questions, Johnson scores particularly well among older people aged 65 or above, 52% of whom think Johnson best understands the country’s problems, as opposed to just 22% of younger people aged 18-24. Johnson (42%) also holds a significant lead over Starmer (26%) when the public is asked who embodies the characteristics of a leader who can get things done. The public’s perspective of Johnson as a leader who can get things done is likely related to his strong ties to the slogan “Get Brexit Done”, which was central to his victory in December’s General Election and ultimately enabled the Prime Minister to take the UK out of the EU at the end of January 2020. 

The Prime Minister himself has said that there is a “long, long way to go” before the UK economy improves. Nevertheless, a clear plurality (44%) consider that the Prime Minister embodies the characteristics of someone who can build a strong economy. Only a quarter (25%) believe the Labour Leader Keir Starmer is more likely to strengthen the UK’s economy, which underlines Labour’s continued struggle in convincing the public it can effectively manage the economy. 

Respondents were notably less likely to describe the Prime Minister as someone who ‘tells the truth’. Only 27% of the public think Johnson tells the truth, whereas around a third (32%) think Starmer does. Furthermore, although the Government’s aim to ‘level up’ the UK through increased state investment may seem like a shift from traditional Conservative policy, a plurality of the UK public think Starmer (38%), rather than Johnson (34%), represents change. However, the 4% difference is only slightly past the margin of error. 

Less than a third (32%) consider that Johnson is someone who is willing to work with other parties where possible, while 36% say that Starmer is. Public perceptions on this subject may have been shaped by Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament last year, as well as Starmer’s stated commitment to work as a constructive opposition during the coronavirus crisis. 

Respondents are evenly split on which major party leader they believe cares about people like them: 34% think Johnson does, while 34% consider Starmer does. A strong plurality of younger people (43% of 18-24 year olds and 38% of 25-34 year olds) think Starmer cares more about people like them. In contrast, a clear plurality (40%) of respondents aged 65 or over consider Johnson more likely to care about them. 

The Prime Minister has recently announced that he has lost weight, claiming that he was “too fat” when he became seriously ill with coronavirus. More respondents consider that Keir Starmer (41%) is in better physical and mental health than Johnson (29%). Starmer is almost two years older than Johnson, yet the public clearly perceive him as healthier than Johnson. 

Although Starmer scores well against the Prime Minister in relation to their personal health, a plurality (43%) believe that Johnson is the stronger leader. Around a third (34%) consider that Starmer is the stronger leader. 

Overall, while Johnson holds a clear lead over Starmer across several key metrics, the Labour Party Leader is preferred to Johnson in some instances, despite his relatively recent election as Leader of the Opposition. In the next few months, Johnson will be faced with significant challenges, yet a successful response is likely to consolidate his lead with regards to economic and foreign policy concerns. Johnson’s reputation as a politician who can get things done will certainly be tested during the rest of 2020.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Follow us on Twitter

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