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 whether the British and American publics believe their Governments could have done more to prevent war in Ukraine.

This week, our research also covered:

  •  Britons’ and Americans’ views on which countries represent the greatest threats
  •  The British public’s favourite past Prime Ministers
  •  American opinions on US defence spending

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
(28 Feb):

Labour 38% (-1)
Conservative 35% (+2)
Liberal Democrat 12% (+1)
Green 5% (-2)
Scottish National Party 5% (–)
Reform UK 4% (–)
Other 1% (-1)

Changes +/- 21 Feb

All Net Approval Ratings
(28 Feb):

Rishi Sunak: +3% (-1)
Keir Starmer: 0% (+1)
Boris Johnson: -18% (+13)

Changes +/- 21 Feb

Our latest voting intention poll finds the Labour Party leading by 3%, a three-point decrease to their lead over the Conservative Party since last week’s poll. Overall, 38% (-1) say they would vote for Labour if there were to be a General Election in the United Kingdom tomorrow, while 35% (+2) would vote Conservative.

Boris Johnson’s net approval rating now sits at -18% after a remarkable 13-point increase compared to last week, which ties for the largest one-week swing in net approval we have recorded for the Prime Minister. Additionally, the Government’s net competency rating has risen 11 points to -24%, and after seven weeks of Keir Starmer leading over Boris Johnson in terms of who would be the better Prime Minister at this moment, Britons are now divided between saying Johnson (36%) and Starmer (36%) would be the better option.

This week, there have also been notable increases in approval of the Government’s performance in almost all policy areas. The realm that sees the greatest jump in net approval is foreign policy, on which the Government receives a -4% (+9) net rating for its performance.

Indeed, the Johnson Government’s foreign policy—or, to be more precise, the circumstances that draw attention to it—is likely to have driven the positive swings in public opinion for the Conservative Party this week. As Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, there appears to be a ‘rally around the flag’ effect at play, in which the international crisis has spurred an uptick in support for the Government. At times of global instability, national stability in the form of the current Government tends to become more attractive, and thus Britons may be looking upon Johnson’s Government with more amenable eyes.

To be sure, as we outlined in a previous edition of Magnified, foreign policy is rarely a top priority for voters in more ordinary times. Our research shows that foreign policy has taken on an elevated importance to Britons since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with 12% of respondents selecting this policy area when asked to identify up to three issues that would most determine how they would vote in a General Election tomorrow—double the proportion who identified foreign policy last week (6%).

Nevertheless, other issues like healthcare (58%), the economy (53%), education (30%), immigration (26%), and taxation (24%) continue to be assigned considerably more significance by the public. Accordingly, while the Boris Johnson Government may enjoy a degree of respite from public scrutiny as it responds to this serious crisis, the pressure to deliver in key domestic policy areas has not and will not disappear.

Chart of the Week

Polling conducted on 22 February in Great Britain and on 23 February in the United States—prior to what was then the possible invasion of Russia—found broadly similar views on which countries represent the most important threats to the United Kingdom and the United States respectively. When presented with a list of countries (35 options in Great Britain, 39 in the US) and asked to select up to three that they believe are the most important threats to their own nation, the most-selected responses among both the British and the American publics are Russia, China, and Iran. No other country listed in our question saw more than 8% of either group of respondents deeming them an important threat.

52% in the US and 51% in Great Britain identify China as one of the greatest threats to the United States and the UK. Notably, 2019 Conservative voters in Britain (61%) and 2020 Donald Trump voters in the US (63%) are considerably more likely to select China as a top threat than 2019 Labour voters (48%) and 2020 Joe Biden voters (51%), revealing the extent to which political affiliation relates to foreign relations views.

Likewise, similar proportions of respondents in the United States (39%) and in Great Britain (36%) select Iran as one of their nation’s greatest threats, with the same partisan trends emerging: in the US, 47% of Trump voters and 32% of Biden voters choose Iran, while 44% of Conservative voters and 31% of Labour voters in Great Britain do as well.

Views diverge between the British and American publics with regard to Russia. Whereas equal proportions of Americans identify Russia (52%) and China (52%) as their country’s greatest threats, Britons are much more likely to select Russia (69%) as an important threat to their country. There is no partisan divide present among the American public when it comes to the threat posed by Russia, with 54% of Trump voters and 55% of Biden voters giving this response. Meanwhile, in Britain, Conservative voters (78%) are somewhat more prone than Labour voters (68%) to perceiving Russia as a top threat to the country.

Therefore, while the American and British publics largely agree on which countries represent the greatest threats to their nations, Britons are evidently more likely than Americans to place Russia in this category. It is also notable that, when the war in Ukraine was looming, Americans on the whole were as likely to perceive China as a threat to their nation as they were to perceive Russia as such.

Our Global Data

Great Britain: Margaret Thatcher (20%) is the most-selected figure when Britons are asked to select their favourite Prime Minister of the last 40 years, followed by Tony Blair (13%), Gordon Brown (9%), Theresa May (9%), and Boris Johnson (9%). Among those who voted Conservative in 2019, Thatcher (40%) is the clear favourite, while 2019 Labour voters are more divided between choosing Blair (24%) and Brown (18%) as their favourite recent Prime Minister.

England: A majority (62%) of 16-to-25-year-olds in England feel the UK Government does not listen to and address the concerns of young people, a perspective that is somewhat more common among female respondents (68%) than among male respondents (57%). Just 25% of young people overall believe the Government does listen to and address young people’s concerns.

United States: The American public is evenly split on whether Joe Biden has handled foreign policy better (37%) or worse (37%) than Donald Trump, with 69% of 2020 Biden voters thinking the current President has handled foreign policy better, 9% thinking he has handled it worse, and 15% thinking he has handled it no differently than his predecessor.

United States: The proportion of Americans who believe the US Government is not taking the right measures to address the coronavirus pandemic has experienced a substantial drop from 46% on 9 January to 34% in our latest poll. A plurality (44%) now believes the Government is currently taking the right measures, up from 38% in January, while a considerable 22% (up 6%) are unsure.

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

Could Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Have Been Prevented?

One week has passed since the world first watched in horror as Russia invaded Ukraine. As devastating, tragic images from the warzone emerge and the global economic consequences of the crisis become apparent, many may be asking if and how this terrible war could have been prevented.

Ever since the threat of another invasion of Ukraine by Russia emerged, President Joe Biden attempted to dissuade the Russian President by warning an invasion of Ukraine would draw ‘severe economic consequences like none [Putin’s] ever seen or have ever been seen,’ in addition to threatening a heightened American military presence in Europe. National security adviser Jake Sullivan reported that, in their 7 December 2021 meeting, ‘Biden looked President Putin in the eye and told him today that things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now,’ a comment echoed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken: ‘we are prepared to take the kinds of steps we’ve refrained from taking in the past that would have massive consequences for Russia.’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, likewise, had indicated ‘there would be an extremely tough package of economic sanctions’ as well as ‘support for Ukraine’ and ‘the build-up of NATO forces in the periphery regions’ if Russia were to invade. Early in February, the UK Government also preemptively broadened the scope of their sanctions capabilities to allow Russian financial institutions, energy companies, and oligarchs to be targeted, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss noting that ‘nothing is off the table.’

Yet, this response ultimately failed to change Vladimir Putin’s calculation.

Some commentators, such as former UK Ambassador to Russia Sir Roderic Lyne, have suggested the motivations for this war are personal, deeply emotional, and, above all, fundamentally irrational for Vladimir Putin. For this group, there was nothing that could have prevented Putin from pursuing this path which he has long been determined to pursue. 

Others, however, have suggested that specific policies of the United States, the United Kingdom, and their allies have played a key, influential role in leading President Putin down this path. Could a different approach, or a better execution of the above approach, have worked?

In the United Kingdom, the debate is already largely settled. In our polling prior to the invasion, 59% believed the UK had not had the ability to prevent a war in Ukraine. One week into the invasion, this figure has increased to 70%, while just 13% in both polls thought otherwise. Before the war began, a majority (54%) of members of the public indicated they would ‘not at all’ hold Boris Johnson responsible if Russia invaded Ukraine, a figure which has now risen to 75% post-invasion.

Likewise, 48% of members of the British public also say the United States did not have the ability to prevent war in Ukraine, and 58% say they do ‘not at all’ hold President Biden responsible for it.

As such, there has been a strong sense among Britons that their Government and the US have been powerless in their attempts to avert an invasion and had therefore neither increased nor decreased the likelihood of a conflict with their actions. Up until early last week, 52% believed the UK Government’s actions had made an invasion of Ukraine neither more nor less likely, while few (16%) believed the Government had made an invasion less likely with its actions.

In the United States, a different picture emerges. When asked if the United States had had the ability to prevent a war in Ukraine, 38% of Americans on 23 February said no, but a sizable 32% said yes, and 31% said they were unsure. Interestingly, 2020 Joe Biden voters (34%) were just as likely as 2020 Donald Trump voters (35%) to feel that the US had in fact had the ability to prevent war at that point.

While a plurality (36%) of respondents to our 23 February poll nevertheless believed the US Government’s actions in the past month had made a Russian invasion of Ukraine neither more nor less likely, 24% believed they made an invasion less likely and 22% believed they made an invasion more likely.

Therefore, in stark contrast to the UK, there is the possibility of a real debate in the United States regarding  whether their country could have acted differently and prevented the war in Ukraine from happening. Such a debate, if it transpires, could have serious consequences for American foreign policy going forward and for Joe Biden’s presidency in particular. Indeed, a majority of Americans on the day prior to the invasion indicated that they would hold President Biden responsible to some degree if Russia invaded Ukraine: 25% ‘a significant amount,’ 26% ‘a fair amount,’ and 12% a ‘small amount.’

Thus far, the debate in the United States, rather than a question of policy, has been centred on whether this situation might have unfolded differently if Donald Trump had still been President. After all, Russia’s invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and again this year have occurred during the respective presidencies of Barack Obama and Joe Biden—not Donald Trump’s.

To this point, 28% on 23 February believed an invasion of Ukraine by Russia would have been less likely to occur had Donald Trump still been in the Oval Office, rising to 50% among those who voted for Trump in 2020. But, at the same time, 26% believed a Russian invasion would have been more likely under a Trump presidency, including 43% of Joe Biden voters, while a further 31% overall believed the event would have been just as likely to occur. There thus exists little consensus as to whether Donald Trump could have prevented the atrocity taking place in Ukraine, and opinions on the matter are largely shaped by partisan preferences.

The former President himself certainly believes he would have been able to avert the war, stating ‘as everyone understands, this horrific disaster would never have happened if our election was not rigged and if I was the President.’ Several Republican figures, such as Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, have backed Trump’s claims, suggesting that his image as a ‘tough’ defender of American interests—particularly in contrast to a ‘weak’ Joe Biden—would have made Vladimir Putin more fearful of the US response to an invasion. 

Such perceptions of the two leaders do exist to a considerable extent: in a November 2021 poll, 53% of Americans said the description ‘is a strong leader’ could accurately describe Donald Trump, while 35% said it could accurately describe Joe Biden. Almost half (48%) of respondents also indicated Trump could be accurately described as someone who ‘can lead the US during a war,’ compared to 32% who said the same of Biden. Therefore, the argument that a ‘tougher’ leader like Donald Trump may have been able to deter Putin could indeed resonate with some Americans.

But the debate should extend further than the counterfactual question of what might have been if Donald Trump had still been President. There are other reasons to suggest that the US Government and its allies may have acted in a way which made a war in Ukraine more likely:

1. The extent of the United States and its allies’ sanctions leverage over Russia and their willingness to apply it was obscured.

While the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, and their allies did threaten serious, economically debilitating sanctions in the event of war, as quoted above, this threat arguably lacked specificity and could have been read as a bluff. 

Russia’s considerable role as a major supplier of gas to Europe—analysts had warned that Europe could only last a month and a half without this supply—and its central role as the provider of rare metals and minerals essential for the production of numerous technology products had been widely acknowledged. In addition, Russia had amassed $635bn in foreign reserves, a considerable rainy day fund.

As a result, there were serious doubts prior to the invasion about whether ‘the West’ had true sanctions leverage over Russia and, if this leverage did exist, whether Western leaders would actually be willing to apply it to its fullest extent given the potential for corresponding economic pain inflicted by Russia.

While 58% of Britons last week believed strict sanctions, if enacted, would inflict a ‘fair’ or ‘significant’ amount of damage on Russia’s economy, an even larger share (66%) believed Russia was capable of inflicting a ‘fair’ or ‘significant’ amount of damage on the United Kingdom’s economy. 40% meanwhile believed Russia could inflict more damage to the economies of the UK and its allies, while just 38% believed it to be the other way around.

Similarly, in the United States, while 68% believed sanctions levied against Russia would inflict a ‘significant’ or a ‘fair’ amount of damage on the Russia economy, 64% believed Russia was capable of inflicting damage to the US economy to the same extent. Even more Americans (76%) believed Russia was capable of inflicting such damage to the economies of Europe.

Yet, following last week’s invasion, the United States, the UK, and their allies have imposed sanctions that had previously been thought to have not been in the cards, including limiting Russia’s access to the international banking payment system SWIFT. Earlier last week, the US and EU had initially announced they would not cut Russia off from the system, with Germany being a key opponent of the measure due to its dependence on Russian gas. 

One could argue that European allies, especially Germany, changed their stance only after the invasion progressed, but one still wonders whether Mr. Putin would have invaded had the extent to which the US, the UK, and their allies were prepared to follow through on severe sanctions on the Russian economy been much more clearly spelled out beforehand.

2. A less provocative stance on whether Ukraine would join NATO or the EU could have been adopted.

Leaving the door open to Ukraine one day joining NATO clearly made Russia, and Vladimir Putin in particular, feel directly threatened. Several foreign policy experts have long warned against this stance and the broader eastern expansion of NATO. As early as 1998, Cold War foreign policy strategist George Kennan argued NATO expansion was a ‘tragic mistake’ that would prompt Russia to ‘gradually react quite adversely.’

More recently, political scientist John Mearsheimer outlined how ‘all the trouble in this case really started in April 2008, at the NATO Summit in Bucharest, where afterward NATO issued a statement that said Ukraine and Georgia would become part of NATO. The Russians made it unequivocally clear at the time that they viewed this as an existential threat, and they drew a line in the sand.’ Widely-respected Russia expert Fiona Hill has similarly acknowledged that there has been ‘a logical, methodical plan that goes back a very long way, at least to 2007 when [Vladimir Putin] put the world, and certainly Europe, on notice that Moscow would not accept the further expansion of NATO.’

In recent months, however, the Joe Biden Administration has only reaffirmed NATO’s open door policy, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken commenting in January that there would be no change to ‘Washington’s support for Ukraine’s right to pursue NATO membership.’ In June 2021, President Joe Biden stated that Ukraine’s admission into NATO ‘remains to be seen’ and ‘depends on whether they meet the criteria,’ alluding only to Ukraine’s problems with corruption and less established democratic norms—not to what this addition would have meant for Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

While Ukraine certainly has had a right to freely choose its own military alliances, NATO and its members equally reserved their own right to choose not to accept Ukraine into NATO, and Joe Biden’s and Antony Blinken’s statements gave little indication that the US would not admit Ukraine into NATO once the country had cleaned up its act.

In the lead-up to Russia’s invasion, Vladimir Putin had made abundantly clear in his conversations with Joe Biden that the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO was one of his ‘red lines.’ Could Joe Biden have conceded to this red line and negotiated for peace in Ukraine by declaring that Ukraine would never be admitted to NATO?

Ultimately, such counterfactual questions may seem moot, and it is impossible to know for sure if something could have been done to change Vladimir Putin’s mind about invading Ukraine. But such questions do matter in politics. In Great Britain, where the dominant view is that the UK Government did not have the ability to do so, the political repercussions for Boris Johnson are likely to be minimal. But the crisis represents a much bigger challenge for Joe Biden’s Administration, and questions of ‘what if’ are no doubt haunting.

And, finally, such questions may point towards potential solutions towards the heartbreaking tragedy unfolding in Ukraine. With pluralities of the American and British public last week thinking sanctions, once enacted, would be unlikely to end the fighting in Ukraine, it is worth reflecting further on what, if anything, could bring an end to this conflict. A better understanding of how this conflict might have been averted in the first place might be a source of inspiration for solutions.

Perspective: The R&WS Take on the News

Climate change: Can the UK afford its net zero policies?
BBC | 23 February 2022

Our take: A group of Conservative MPs have formed a Net Zero Scrutiny Group, arguing that reaching net zero by 2050—a legally-binding target the Government has set—will come at too great a cost. Our polling in November 2021 reveals that almost half (47%) of the public disagrees with this position, instead believing the potential costs of not pursuing net zero would be greater than the costs of pursuing it. However, 30% do hold the view that the costs of pursuing net zero would outweigh the potential costs of not doing so, a figure which increases to 37% among 2019 Conservative voters.

Top U.S. Senate Republican calls on Biden for 5% increase in military spending
Reuters | 28 February 2022

Our take: Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has called on President Joe Biden to increase defence spending by at least 5% to counter ‘the growing threats posed by Russia and China.’ The American public is highly divided on the topic: 40% believe the US spends too much on defence and 37% believe it does not spend enough. McConnell’s call will be welcomed by many of those who voted for Donald Trump in 2020, 52% of whom say the US does not spend enough on defence, in addition to 29% of Joe Biden voters who feel the same. Conversely, 53% of Biden voters and 29% of Trump voters feel the US spends too much in this area.

R&WS in the Media

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

Make sexual harassment a criminal offence to help tackle violence against women and girls, say 87% of UK women
iNews | 3 March 2022

MPs are handed 2.7% pay rise taking salaries to £84,144 with watchdog saying they worked harder during pandemic – after ministers urged public sector restraint despite cost-of-living crisis
MailOnline | 1 March 2022

‘See you soon!’ Trump plots social media comeback as speculation of political return grows
Express | 21 February 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. For the second time in the past year, the British public is more likely to trust Labour than to trust the Conservatives in ALL policy areas on which we poll. (25 Feb): (see full tweet)
  2. Tied highest net approval rating for Boris Johnson in 2022. (28 Feb): (see full tweet)
  3. At this moment, which of the following individuals do you think would be the better Prime Minister for the UK? (28 Feb): (see full tweet)
  4. Does the British public agree or disagree that the country needs to move on from the parties held in 10 Downing Street during the pandemic? (26 Feb): (see full tweet)
  5. Second neutral net approval rating for Keir Starmer since April 2021. (28 Feb): (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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