Written By Philip van Scheltinga

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Good Thursday Afternoon,

It’s time to take a look at the polls! With the Conservatives now consistently trailing Labour by at least 20% in our national polling, we ask ourselves: has anyone really learned the key lessons from an eventful 2022?

Our first Magnified of 2023 therefore explores how we got into the present position by taking a deep dive into the lessons of 2022. Broadly, these lessons are as follows:

  1. The pandemic ended, in a political sense, in 2022. Whereas the Government’s approval ratings and the Conservative Party’s standing in voting intention polling had been intimately tied to their performance on the pandemic in 2020 and in 2021, the public’s fears faded on this one issue, and their focus shifted to multiple other areas. One crisis ended, and several new ones emerged.
  1. However, in stark contrast to the whole-of-government effort that was seen during the pandemic, the public perceived and still perceives a lack of urgency in the Government, when it comes to addressing post-pandemic problems, in particular a cost-of-living crisis, a severely backlogged NHS, and a “broken” immigration system.
  1. While some may identify the party-gate scandal and other personal failings for his resignation in mid-2022, it was Boris Johnson’s failure to deliver on the issues that mattered to voters that did him in the end. The only policy area where the public has broadly wanted continuity between him and his successor(s) is Ukraine.
  1. In presenting herself as an agent of change, Liz Truss aligned herself with the general mood of not only Conservative voters, but also the country at large. For this reason, she won the Conservative Party’s leadership contest against Rishi Sunak who offered more of the same. However, her failure to be honest with the public and to present genuine trade-offs exhibited a lack of the courage she sought to project.
  1. Rishi Sunak’s unexpected comeback and installation as Prime Minister leaves a Government and Party led by a cautious leader, whose caginess has only been bolstered by the events of 2022. With Labour now polling in an easily majority-winning position, Keir Starmer has also come to exhibit this undesired trait, leaving both parties in an exposed position in a country yearning not just for safety but for courage. 

We sometimes see an implicit assumption that the end of 2022, the year of three Prime Ministers, means a return to a sort of politics as usual. The tedium of repetitive 20 percentage point leads for Labour Party since November even lends a sense of inevitability, that we are all just waiting for the expected change in one to two years’ time, when the next General Election is finally held.

Yet, to view the coming time as an interregnum to be endured is to miss the key lessons of 2022. The public is restive and wants change, genuine change. Two years is a long time to wait.

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.

The Pandemic Ended, Sort Of

Difficult as it may be to believe from our present perspective, the coronavirus pandemic was still a major issue in the United Kingdom at the beginning of 2022. A new variant, the Omicron variant, had been rapidly spreading throughout the country in December. But unlike the winter of 2020-2021, a mostly vaccinated country did not lockdown again. 

Yes, the Government did introduce ‘Plan B’ measures on 8 December, mandating the wearing of facemasks in most indoor spaces, the use of the NHS Covid Pass to enter certain venues, and encouraging people to work from home where they could. But these restrictions were considerably more relaxed in comparison to the UK’s neighbours. The Netherlands, for instance, went into an actual lockdown, and Ireland closed nightclubs and limited capacity in all other entertainment venues to 50%.

Cases continued to rise from about 40,000 per day on the first week of December to 275,000 on 4 January, and the Government did not lift another finger. The risk the Government took, betting that Omicron would prove to be mild, paid off. Following no surge in hospital admissions, cases would fall precipitously starting in mid-January.

The Government’s broadly unflinching stance in the face of a rapid rise of coronavirus cases was bold and initially unsupported. Only 31% of Britons thought the Government was taking the right measures to deal with Coronavirus in late December, compared to 50% who thought it was not. 

A few weeks later, on 19 January, 54% of voters would come to say they were in support of the Government’s decision not to lockdown over Christmas, with only 20% saying they opposed it. By 18 March, shortly after the Government lifted all covid-related restrictions, 50% thought the Government was taking the right measures to address the pandemic, against only 33% who thought it was not.

Net approval of the Government’s handling of the pandemic entered positive territory in February and—apart from a brief blip in April during another rise in cases—has remained positive ever since, most recently standing at +33%.

To be sure, the pandemic is still with us. People are still being infected with coronavirus today, and some who are immunocompromised remain seriously afraid. At this moment, 7% of Britons, no small figure, say their lives have ‘not at all’ returned to normal. But far more Britons would be saying their lives have ‘not at all’ returned to normal, if the pandemic had not, in some material sense, ended.

In a way, the Government paid a price for its success. Whereas overall approval for the Government and for Boris Johnson in particular had once been closely correlated with his performance on the pandemic, the end of the pandemic also meant that the public’s attention would be drawn elsewhere. 23% of voters in our first poll of 2022 cited coronavirus restrictions as one of the three issues that would most determine how they would vote at the next election. In our most recent poll on 22 January, that figure stood at just 4%.

Critically, the key decisions that led to this end were borne out of courage, something that proved sorely lacking in other domestic policy areas as British politics would shift away from the pandemic itself to its numerous societal and economic repercussions.

An Economic Crisis Unaddressed

At the start of 2022, the Government’s approval on the economy was negative. 44%, a plurality, felt that the Government was not taking the right measures to address the economic repercussions of the pandemic. 36% thought the Government was doing so. Furthermore, 60% of voters were saying, a month before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that they were ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ concerned about their ability to pay their energy bills.

Critically, the Government’s spending throughout the pandemic left a £400 billion hole in the budget—a thorn that would eventually cause two Conservative governments to fall. As a result of efforts to plug this gap, the Conservatives had lost their reputation for low taxes by February, when a majority (53%) most associated the party with raising taxes, rather than lowering taxes.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February and its ensuing sanctions would make a bleak situation worse, while also providing cover for leading politicians to deflect responsibility for an economic crisis largely attributable to other factors. “We’re paying higher bills. Ukraine is paying in blood,” Boris Johnson eventually declared.

Altogether, the Government’s -4% net approval rating on the economy in our first poll of the year would turn out to be highest rating it would achieve in all of 2022.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement in late March, which included a 1.25% increase in national insurance contributions to create a “dedicated funding source” for the NHS and social care services, did little to calm the waters. That month would be the last time the Conservatives led Labour on the subject of the economy.

Rather than reassuring, the Spring Statement fed a wider misgiving: the perception that, whereas the Government had gone all hands on deck to tackle the pandemic, it was not meeting the cost-of-living crisis with anything approaching the same urgency. 

After all, in a matter of months, the United Kingdom had gone from daily press conferences and a clear whole-of-government effort regarding the pandemic to…almost nothing.

In April, 77% said the Government had taken the pandemic ‘extremely’ or ‘fairly’ seriously. By contrast, only 33% thought the same regarding the cost-of-living crisis. Asked directly if they thought the Government was approaching the cost-of-living crisis as urgently as it had previously approached the pandemic, a majority of 56% disagreed. Just 25% agreed.

Rishi Sunak’s approval rating consequently plummeted, worsened further by the revelations that his wife held a non-domiciled tax status, that both Sunaks had held onto their permanent residency status in the United States, and that Rishi Sunak had received a fine for breaching covid-19 regulations by attending a Downing Street party. By mid-April, Sunak’s approval rating stood at -18%, down 33-points from early March, and would never really recover during the remainder of his time as Chancellor.

Because of the involvement of personal scandals, the key lesson from this March/April period when the then Chancellor’s approval ratings collapsed appear not to have been learned. The sense that the Government is not on the side of ordinary people, fighting day in, day out to do better, is still widespread. In polling conducted last week, half of Britons agreed with the statement, “Rishi Sunak has been absent.”

A Severely Backlogged NHS

In April, we compared the Conservative Party’s attempts to gain the public’s trust on the NHS to the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus. The comparison is apt. For despite announcing a record investment of £36 billion in the NHS in April, and an additional investment of £3.3 billion pounds in what was otherwise a cost-cutting Autumn Statement, public distrust of the Conservative Party on the NHS remains undimmed. 

If anything, the polling for the Government on the NHS has been only getting worse. At no point in 2022 did more voters approve than disapprove of the Government’s performance on the NHS, a trend that has continued into 2023. 

A majority of voters have disapproved in every poll since 25 September, following then Health Secretary Thérèse Coffey’s paltry announcement that no patient should have to wait more than two weeks to see a GP—an announcement which was met with widespread derision, with Labour pointing out that the last Labour Government had set a target of 48 hours. In the first polls of 2023, at least 60% of the public have said they disapprove of the Government’s performance on the NHS, more than on any other issue.

Meanwhile, Labour led as the most trusted party to deal with the NHS by more than 10 points in all 50 polls we conducted in 2022, with that lead over the Conservatives growing to more than 25% in all four polls we’ve conducted so far in 2023.

More money alone is not going to cut it, because what matters in the end is what people experience on the ground. For all of Boris Johnson’s investments in the health service, for which Rishi Sunak implemented an unpopular national insurance tax increase, a plurality (32%) of voters in April said they thought his government had decreased rather than increased (an option selected by 29%) spending on the NHS.

Out of Step on Immigration

In April, then-Home Secretary Priti Patel flew to Rwanda to ink an ambitious deal—somewhat grandly titled the ‘UK-Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership’—which the Government fervently hoped would solve its immigration headache. Under the terms of the plan, migrants arriving in Britain—many after crossing the Channel in small boats—faced deportation to Rwanda, where their applications for asylum could then be processed. 

Predictably, legal action was launched to stop the deportations, with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issuing an injunction to prevent the first flight of just seven migrants from leaving the UK. As a result, not a single migrant has been flown to Rwanda.

In the absence of any scheme to discourage them, the number of migrants crossing the Channel to the UK from France has surged. The Government’s own figures suggest the number who arrived on the UK’s shores in 2022 was over 40,000, more than four times the number who arrived in 2019.

But it’s not just channel crossings, legal migration has significantly increased too. The ONS reported 1.1 million new arrivals into the UK in the year ending June 2022. Together, these figures are wholly out of step with what the public wants, which has largely been less or the same amount of immigration, not more.

All to say, immigration has been an open sore for the Conservative Party. A majority of voters have disapproved of the governments performance on the issue in every poll since early November, ranking it one of its worst policy areas. Significantly, Labour has led as the party most trusted to handle immigration in 23 consecutive polls, with the Conservatives last holding a lead on 7 March. Today, Labour stands 13 points ahead (34% vs 21%) on the issue.

Boris Johnson Failed to Deliver

In his speech announcing his resignation in July, Boris Johnson argued that the “herd instinct” of Westminster forced him out and claimed that his government was “delivering so much,” having been given a “vast mandate.” 

Future historical accounts may try to agree with Johnson’s assessment and argue that the party-gate scandal, and the hypocrisy it exposed, brought about the end of his premiership. And there is some truth to this claim. For instance, Johnson’s approval rating dropped to a near lowest ever -28% on the day the Sue Gray report into ‘partygate’ was finally published.

But it should be clear that, by the halfway point of 2022, Johnson’s Government was failing to deliver on nearly every major issue for voters. Though Johnson’s personal failings (with which the public had been familiar long before he had become Prime Minister) contributed to his downfall, it was his policy performance on the issues that truly did him in.

As Johnson left office, Ukraine/Russia was the only policy area on which a plurality of voters (42%) said they would prefer the next Prime Minister to adopt a more similar approach to that adopted by Johnson than a more different one. On every other issue, the public wanted Johnson’s successor to pursue a different course.

The widespread favourability Johnson earned for his handling of the Ukraine war stands out, if only to think about what should have been done with regard to other policy issues. In the same April poll referenced earlier, in which only 33% thought that the Government was approaching the cost-of-living crisis ‘fairly’ or ‘extremely’ seriously, 80% thought the Government had approached the war in Ukraine with such seriousness.

Indeed, no Western leader had thrown themselves more enthusiastically, more boldly into the task of rallying support for Ukraine in response to Russia’s build up and invasion than Boris Johnson. In August, after his resignation, a 39% plurality of voters even said they would have approved of Johnson’s successor appointing him to a role where he would continue to be involved in the UK’s support for Ukraine. But where had this enthusiasm and boldness been on domestic issues?

Liz Truss Lacked Courage

Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss, entered Number 10 declaring her intention to reform the economy and kickstart growth, even if that came at a cost to her own popularity

But despite this promise to take difficult decisions, Truss opened her premiership with a flurry of crowd pleasing—and expensive—measures. In her first big policy move, Truss announced annual energy bills for the average household would be frozen at £2,500 for two years, a move which the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated would “easily cost over £100 billion in the next year alone.

This expensive policy was then followed by a tax-slashing mini-budget, which included the abolition of the top rate of tax, the reversal of the planned increase in national insurance, an immediate cut in the basic rate of income tax from 20% to 19%, and the doubling of the threshold for stamp duty. Altogether, the estimated value of tax to no longer be collected from the taxpayer was claimed to amount to £45 billion.

Perhaps surprisingly, to those who remember the eventual consequences of the mini budget, the public largely approved of most of the measures announced. In the week following the budget, majorities of respondents said they approved of the cap on energy bills (70%), the cut to the basic rate of income tax (60%), the scrapping of the National Insurance increase (58%), and the changes to stamp duty (56%).

Brave though these measures might have been, Truss’s decision to proceed with the mini budget without publishing an estimate from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) betrayed a worrying aversion to challenge or criticism. Her subsequent absence and unwillingness to explain how her policies would work betrayed a lack of courage.

As a result of this lack of transparency, the United Kingdom’s creditors, another important constituency, got nervous. The pound fell to record lows against the dollar, while the cost of UK Government borrowing rose sharply. Amid fears of a potential run on pension funds, and of wider financial instability, the Bank of England staged an emergency intervention to buy up to £65 billion of UK government bonds.

The response of the markets served to spook the public. Liz Truss’s approval rating tanked, bottoming out at a scarcely believable -77%, while the government’s net competency rating fell to a low -64%. In the week she left office, Keir Starmer had taken a lead of 51% over Truss in their head-to-head on who would be the better Prime Minister. Among 2019 Conservative voters, Starmer’s lead on the same question was 31%.

Ultimately, Truss failed—as we wrote at the time—not because she was too ideologically inflexible, but because she refused to be straight with the public about the trade-offs that would need to be made in order to meet their priorities.

If Truss had been as courageous as she claimed to be, she would have challenged the public. Instead, she sought to appease the public in every respect by slashing taxes and introducing a massively costly energy price guarantee, while simultaneously pledging no cuts to public spending. Rather than risking unpopularity, she promised the world to voters, and reality took care of the rest. 

Rishi Sunak, who had not offered much change in terms of policy during the initial Conservative Party leadership contest, thus took office as the third Conservative Prime Minister in three months. Implicitly, his return has meant the chances of any bold measures by the Conservative Government are low. After an initial, brief bounce, his approval rating as Prime Minister has consistently dropped since taking office, this week hitting a new low of -15%.

Courage in Short Supply?

Across the country, public sentiment is bleak. 67% of Britons agree that ‘the system is not working for me,’ while a similar figure of 66% agree that ‘everything is broken.’ Optimism is in short supply, with only 18% of voters now saying they are optimistic about the direction in which the UK is heading, against 55% who are pessimistic. These figures make damning reading for a Conservative Party that has been in office for more than a decade. 

But this fatalism has consequences for Labour, too. While Labour has now led in every voting intention poll published since December 2021—and by large margins as of late—57% in a poll this past December agreed with the statement, “It does not matter who wins the next election as nothing will change.” 71% of voters agreed that they wanted to vote for real change but felt that no one is really offering it.

After being asked how they would vote in a General Election, 53% of respondents in polling this month agree with the statement, “I wish there was someone else I could vote for.” This figure includes 44% of those who say they would now vote Conservative, 56% of present Labour voters, 58% of undecided voters, 62% of those who would vote Reform, and 49% of those who would vote for the Liberal Democrats.

Has anyone really learned the lessons of the 2022? 

From Boris Johnson’s successes in Ukraine and on the pandemic to his failure to deliver on nearly every other important issue for voters; from Rishi Sunak’s lack of urgency to Liz Truss’ lack of transparency; from Labour’s massive polling leads to the public’s unfamiliarity with Keir Starmer; all these events and data points indicate that the public wants not just a ‘safe pair of hands’ or something new, they want courageousness, boldness, vision—qualities that, the public themselves will admit, are missing amongst our political leaders.

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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