Written By Philip van Scheltinga

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Good Thursday Afternoon,

It’s time to take a look at the polls! In this week’s issue of Magnified, we take an in-depth look at why the crisis unfolding at the Ukrainian border is unlikely to provide any respite for Boris Johnson as he struggles to regain the public’s favour.

This week, our research also covered:

  • Rishi Sunak’s declining popularity following his reaffirmation of the National Insurance increase
  • Assessments of specific dimensions of the UK Government’s pandemic response
  • The American public’s views on recent former Presidents

If you would like to find out more about how Redfield & Wilton Strategies can help your organisation succeed through polling and strategic advice, click here.

Westminster Insights

Westminster Voting Intention
(31 Jan):

Labour 40% (-1)
Conservative 33% (-1)
Liberal Democrat 11% (–)
Green 6% (+1)
Scottish National Party 4% (-1)
Reform UK 3% (–)
Other 2% (+1)

Changes +/- 24 Jan

All Net Approval Ratings
(31 Jan):

Rishi Sunak: +11% (-6)
Keir Starmer: -1% (+1)
Boris Johnson: -27% (–)

Changes +/- 24 Jan

Our latest voting intention poll—which was conducted prior to the preliminary release of Sue Gray’s report on Monday—finds the Labour Party leading by 7%, the same margin as in last week’s poll. Overall, 40% (-1) say they would vote for Labour if there were to be a General Election in the United Kingdom tomorrow, while 33% (-1) would vote Conservative. The Government’s net competency rating stands at -35% (-2) in this week’s poll, and the Prime Minister’s net approval rating remains at -27% (–).

As Boris Johnson struggles to keep his head above water, Rishi Sunak may seem a beneficiary of the latest party-gate developments: 45% of all respondents now say they think Sunak would be a better Prime Minister than Johnson—the highest proportion we have ever recorded in this regard, having increased by 12 points since early December 2021.

Even more worrying for Boris Johnson, 2019 Conservative voters are only slightly more likely to pick Johnson (44%) over Sunak (41%) as the better choice for Prime Minister. And it is not just in comparison to Johnson that Sunak is the increasingly preferred choice. For both the public and the Conservative Party’s previous voter base, Rishi Sunak is the leading candidate among the Conservative MPs who may seek to replace Johnson, as we mentioned in a previous edition of Magnified.

However, as the Prime Minister’s number two, Sunak is at risk of becoming an unwitting co-passenger to Johnson’s fall from grace. To be sure, Sunak has hardly been outspoken in his support of the Prime Minister during this trying time, raising eyebrows, for instance, by not being present for Johnson’s apology in the Commons. But the latest scandal goes much further than implicating just Boris Johnson; the Conservative Party at large and its Cabinet in particular have been damaged by the affair, and will continue to be damaged as long as party-gate plagues what is still Johnson’s Government.

For this reason, as we cited in last week’s Magnified, the Conservative Party performs almost as poorly with Rishi Sunak as their leader as they do with Boris Johnson in hypothetical voting intention in Red Wall seats. Even more demonstrative of this overall shift, a slight plurality this week says Keir Starmer (39%), rather than Sunak (38%), would be the better Prime Minister at this moment. The result marks the first time Sunak has not led over Starmer since we began tracking this question in June 2020.

More troubling for him, Rishi Sunak has fared progressively worse in public approval as he has gained greater public exposure, spelling trouble for his future. The initial ‘honeymoon’ phase when he first took the position of Chancellor—defined by his wildly popular measures to pump large amounts of money into the economy during the onset of the pandemic—is definitively over, and the time for tough decisions has arrived.

An upcoming increase in National Insurance tax to fund health and social care, a move that has been fiercely criticised by many Conservative MPs and Cabinet members, is perhaps the most defining decision Sunak has had to make to date. Amidst reports that the Prime Minister was ‘wobbling’ on the increase due its unpopularity, Sunak and Johnson confirmed it would go ahead as planned in a The Sunday Times piece last weekend.

The public reaction to this affirmation was clear: Sunak’s net approval rating dropped six points to +11% this week, tying for the lowest net approval rating we have recorded for the Chancellor. Among 2019 Conservative voters, his rating fell nine points, now standing at +44%. The only time Conservative voters have given him a lower net approval rating was in September 2021—directly after he first announced the National Insurance increase.

Though the Chancellor’s net approval rating is still positive—which is more than can be said for Boris Johnson or Keir Starmer—approval of Sunak’s performance has been in gradual decline over the past two years, and this latest decision, accompanied by Sunak’s association with Johnson, only accelerates this downward trend.

Evidently, giving a green light to the planned tax raise was not what the public wanted to hear from Sunak. In a poll we conducted last week, 56% of Britons said they would support the Government scrapping the National Insurance tax increase, including 51% of Conservative voters. As we discuss below, Britons are already suffering the consequences of rising costs. When the levy goes into effect in April and Britons visibly see their take-home pay diminish, one can be sure the public will not look upon Sunak as fondly as it once did.

Chart of the Week

Looking Deeper into the Government’s Covid Response

At -14%, the Government’s net approval rating on its handling of the coronavirus pandemic is at the lowest point we have recorded since we began tracking it in July 2021, following the decline in approval for the Government across all issues in the wake of party-gate. Yet, there is much more to the picture than this figure alone. For instance, for the first time since October 2021, more Britons say ‘yes’ (45%) rather than ‘no’ (40%) when asked if the Government is currently taking the right measures to address the pandemic.

Rather than looking solely at overall approval of the Government’s pandemic management, our research digs deeper, asking Britons to reflect on the specific areas where the Government has needed to act decisively in response to the pandemic. In Britons’ eyes, it certainly has performed better in some areas than in others.

When asked whether the UK Government has done a good or bad job in a variety of aspects related to the pandemic, the public is by far the most inclined to give the Government a high rating when it comes to implementing the vaccination programme. 72% of respondents say the Government has done a good job in this regard, a figure that has remained nearly unchanged since we last asked this question in March 2021. There also continues to be a strong sense that the Government has done a good job conducting a nationwide testing programme (53%) and protecting the jobs at risk as a result of the pandemic and lockdowns (48%).

Further, a plurality (42%) believes the Government has done a good job communicating to the public the rules in place—though this figure has decreased from 61% in March 2021, while those saying it has done a bad job has grown from 18% to 32%. This heightened sense that the Government has performed poorly on communicating rules is no doubt informed by the recent party-gate scandal, which has conveyed a deep lack of belief by the Government in the very rules they were encouraging the public to follow.

In fact, as a likely result of this recent scandal, almost all areas have seen a notable increase in the proportion of respondents who believe the Government has done a bad job relative to March—a time when, it must be noted, Covid cases had fallen dramatically and the vaccine was being rolled out.

A majority of 56% now feels the Government has done a bad job protecting care homes from outbreaks, up from 42% in March. Likewise, the share of Britons who believe it has done a bad job at providing NHS staff with essential protective equipment has increased from 32% to 45%.

Most glaringly reflecting the party-gate fallout, 45% say the Government has done a bad job bringing the UK together in spirit, whereas only 28% felt this way in March 2021.

Perceptions of the Government’s performance on the pandemic are thus complex, varying over time and depending significantly on which specific dimension of the response is in question. Amidst the growing sense that the Government is currently taking the right steps in relaxing restrictions and moving Britain forward, criticisms of how the Government has responded to the pandemic over the past two years will no doubt linger.

Our Global Data

United States: When it comes to recent former Presidents, Americans view Barack Obama most favourably. 52% have a favourable view of Obama, while a respective 41% view Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton favourably. Unfavourable views are most prominent towards Donald Trump, with 43% saying they view him unfavourably—compared to 30% for Clinton, 29% for Obama, and 23% for Bush.

United States: Americans have little faith that the economic situation in their country will soon improve: majorities or pluralities think unemployment (42%), inflation (61%), national debt (62%), and the US economy in general (48%) are likely to worsen in the next three months. Concerning their own personal financial situations, a relatively smaller proportion (26%) expects theirs to worsen within this timeframe, while 37% think their financial situation will stay the same and 25% think it will improve.

Great Britain: Most of the British public feels their private messages online are either ‘fairly’ (49%) or ‘somewhat’ (28%) secure. 25-to-34-year-olds are the most likely to feel their private messages are ‘significantly’ secure (18%), while respondents aged 55 to 64 (15%) and 65 and above (15%) are the most inclined to feeling their messages are ‘not at all’ secure.

England: 46% of 16-to-25-year-olds in England say they take online courses on subjects they have not been able to learn about in school, including 47% of those pursuing their A Levels and 50% of those pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Hire Us: If you are a business, campaign, or research organisation looking to expand your understanding of public opinion, Redfield & Wilton Strategies has the tools to help. Get in touch to find out more.

Long Exposure: In-Depth Analysis

The Ukraine Crisis for Boris Johnson: Falklands, Suez, or Something Else?

The day after the release of Sue Gray’s report into lockdown parties held at Downing Street, Boris Johnson headed to Ukraine, where the threat of a Russian invasion looms large. The Government has stepped up its support for the country, with Johnson announcing £88 million in additional funding for Ukraine and vowing that ‘the UK will continue to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty in the face of those who seek to destroy it.’

Boris Johnson may very well be hoping that the alarming situation on Ukraine’s border will turn the media’s and public’s attention eastwards, away from the ongoing Metropolitan Police investigation. He may even see in Ukraine a chance to prove his uncompromising leadership abilities and turn his fortunes around, just as Margaret Thatcher’s fortunes turned around after the Falklands War. But the Prime Minister is sorely mistaken if he believes his resolve to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty will overshadow the storm he is facing at home.

It is well-known that foreign policy is rarely at the top of voters’ minds. Indeed, it routinely ranks among the least chosen options when Britons are asked which issues are most likely to determine how they vote in a General Election. Just 6% of respondents this week place foreign policy in their top three election issues, a figure that has remained fairly consistent over the past six months.

That is not to say that Britons do not engage with matters of foreign policy at all. In a 24 January poll, 28% said they had heard or read ‘a significant amount’ and 36% ‘a fair amount’ about the news regarding a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But when it comes to how much the news matters to the British public, it is truly a different story. Just 14% say the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine matters ‘a significant amount’ to them, while a plurality (32%) says it matters ‘a small amount,’ and a quarter (24%) says it does not matter ‘at all.’

By comparison, 54% of Britons have heard or read ‘a significant amount’ about the party held at 10 Downing Street in May 2020, and 32% say the party matters ‘a significant amount’ to them. The British public is evidently far more interested in what has been happening at Downing Street than what has been happening on Ukraine’s border, and this focus is unlikely to shift any time soon.

Though there undoubtedly is a degree of public support for the Government’s efforts to back Ukraine, it is nowhere near being a winning policy with widespread approval. 38% of respondents say they support the UK providing military support to Ukraine with a view towards deterring Russia from invading, while 24% neither support nor oppose the move and 23% oppose it. The reception to the Government’s announced aid to Ukraine has thus been lukewarm, making it improbable that Johnson’s response will win him any favour with voters.

In fact, it is unclear whether any response will win the public’s support: a plurality (32%) says they would neither support nor oppose the UK declaring that Ukraine will never become a part of NATO with a view towards defusing the potential for conflict, while a further 24% say they don’t know. Meanwhile, in a December 2021 poll, a plurality (35%) also indicated that they would neither support nor oppose Ukraine being admitted to NATO, with 23% again being unsure how they felt.

There is a discernible lack of opinion about how the United Kingdom should react to the crisis, stemming from Britons being largely unconvinced that what happens in Ukraine should be a pressing concern for them. Though 30% in December did agree with a statement asserting that the security of Ukraine is vital to the long-term security of the UK, 36% neither agreed nor disagreed, 11% disagreed, and 23% said they did not know. Given this uncertainty regarding the significance of Ukraine to the UK, and amidst the pandemic, inflation, and fury over Johnson’s behaviour, one can understand why attention remains firmly on the homefront.

For this reason, attending to the crisis in Ukraine will provide little respite for Boris Johnson. It would be particularly unwise to seek to turn the situation into a military intervention: only 26% would support the UK sending troops to Ukraine to deter an invasion, and slightly fewer (24%) would support British troops defending Ukraine militarily in the event of an invasion.

If the UK were to opt for a military response, Johnson would have to grapple with the feasibility of such an intervention in the absence of American support, as Joe Biden has said he will not send troops to Ukraine. The situation thus risks further exposing the UK’s—and Johnson’s own—reduced capacity to influence events on the world stage. Just as in the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the UK may find itself once again prisoner to Washington’s decisions, with little power to direct a distinct policy of its own.

The reality of British dependence on the US was not lost on Britons in the aftermath of Afghanistan, when our polling found 68% believed it was not feasible for the United Kingdom to continue its mission there without the United States. A further 40% said the UK is not capable of engaging in serious military missions elsewhere in the world without the support of the US, while 33% were unsure.

With memories of Afghanistan perhaps fresh in their minds, Britons reaffirmed these sentiments in our more recent polling on the situation in Ukraine: a majority (59%) of respondents believe the UK does not have the capacity to provide sufficient military support to deter an invasion by Russia. Just 17% think the UK is capable of doing so.

An alternative policy that centres on sanctioning Russia may be met with greater acceptance, with 47% saying they would support imposing further sanctions on Russia rather than deploying troops to deter an invasion. Between the two policy options, there is significantly more support for sanctions (54%) than for sending troops (15%), making the public’s preference on the matter apparent. But, we must note, support for such an approach only exists so far in the context of being an alternative to a militaristic approach.

Even this alternative approach could bring harmful consequences, however. An aggressive set of Western sanctions could provoke Russia into restricting the gas exports on which Europe relies, risking a modern iteration of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo which followed the Yom Kippur War. Though the United Kingdom does not directly depend on Russia for gas, the British market is still highly connected to the European market. Higher gas prices on the continent could bring higher gas prices to the UK.

To note these risks and the public’s lower level of interest is not to say the United Kingdom should choose to do nothing. Rather, our polling highlights the need for a smart, concerted strategy by the United Kingdom, developed in tandem with its allies, that has a coherent vision of Britain’s interests in Ukraine, Russia, and Eastern Europe and that understands the limits of what Britain and its allies can realistically achieve.

Above all, there should be a clear understanding that a shift in focus towards Ukraine, while important, will not relieve the Prime Minister of his burdens at home. Overplaying Britain’s hand could exacerbate Boris Johnson’s leadership crisis, making Ukraine a repeat of Anthony Eden’s Suez Crisis. A successfully executed strategy, on the other hand, may be a thankless task—averting a catastrophe, in effect, means nothing happens.

Even if Boris Johnson can find a way to save Ukraine, Ukraine may not save him.

Perspective: The R&WS Take on the News

Skyrocketing energy bills to hit £1,900 from April
The Telegraph | 28 January 2022

Our take: The price cap on energy bills is set to rise in April, adding to the cost of living crisis that the British public faces. The rising prices are having a substantial impact on Britons’ lives: 31% are ‘very concerned’ and 30% are ‘fairly concerned’ about their ability to afford their energy bills this year, and a large majority have at least slightly changed their spending habits and behaviour in response. A plurality (38%) of respondents now expect their financial situation to worsen in the next three months—the largest proportion to express this belief since we began tracking this question in October 2020. With energy bills rising in April at the same time as the National Insurance tax, pressure on the Government to alleviate the public’s financial stress will no doubt escalate.

Bill extending HS2 to Manchester laid in Parliament
BBC | 24 January 2022

Our take: Last week, a bill to extend the HS2 rail line to Manchester was introduced in Parliament, following the news last fall that the extension to Leeds would be scrapped. While Transport Secretary Grant Shapps deemed the bill a ‘landmark moment’ for the Government and its levelling up agenda, public attitudes towards the project mark a stark contrast. 46% of Britons indicate they would support the Government scrapping HS2, increasing to 50% among 2019 Conservative voters, whereas just 15% overall would be opposed. Public support for abandoning the project is likely in large part driven by concerns about its costs, with 58% of respondents familiar with HS2 in an October 2021 poll saying it does not resepent value for money. Concerns about its environmental impact may also play a role: 45% of such respondents believe the HS2 project will, on the whole, be a bad thing for the environment.

R&WS in the Media

Each week we bring you the top stories from the media that have featured our research.

Boris Johnson’s challenge is to win back Leave voters
The Telegraph | 1 February 2022

Cost of living crisis: Eight in ten worried about paying their energy bills
Express | 23 January 2022

More than half of TV viewers don’t think BBC is worth £159 licence fee
Mirror | 22 January 2022

Are you a journalist needing a stat for your latest piece? We can be your resource—our polling covers hundreds of issues in multiple countries each week. If you are working on an article on a topical issue, chances are we have already asked the public about it. Get in touch and we’ll share our polling data with you!

Our Research on Social Media

Top 5 Tweets This Week

  1. Largest % to say Starmer would be a better PM than Johnson we have recorded. (31 Jan): (see full tweet)
  2. How do Britons think the BBC should be funded? (28 Jan): (see full tweet)
  3. A quarter of 2019 Conservative Party voters most trust the Labour Party to tackle poverty (24%) and to support the NHS (24%). (28 Jan): (see full tweet)
  4. Does the British public agree or disagree that BBC services are worth the current £159 a year licence fee? (28 Jan): (see full tweet)
  5. For which OTHER party could current Labour voters see themselves voting? (27 Jan): (see full tweet)

Have a question or want to know more about our research? Get in touch! Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Follow us on Twitter

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