What British voters think about Boris Johnson, the Conservatives and Brexit

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon meeting yesterday in Edinburgh.
Tuesday, July 30, 2019

After the high drama of last week, in which Boris Johnson won the leadership of the British Conservative Party, entered 10 Downing Street as Theresa May’s successor as prime minister, and in short order appointed a new government committed to leaving the EU on Oct. 31 with or without an approved withdrawal agreement with the EU, Johnson and the Conservatives both enjoyed, not surprisingly, a sizeable “bounce” in the polls, albeit with some important caveats.

An Opinium poll for The Observer, conducted on July 24-26 among 2006 voters in Great Britain, found that, excluding  those who said they wouldn’t vote, don’t know or wouldn’t say who they’d vote for, 30 percent said if there were an election tomorrow they’d vote for the Conservatives, an increase of 7 percent since early July, compared with 28 percent (up 3) for Labour, 16 percent (up 1) for the Liberal Democrats, 15 percent (down 7) for the Brexit Party, and 5 percent (down 3) for the Greens. Likewise, a YouGov/Sunday Times poll, conducted on July 25-26 among 1697 voters in Great Britain, found that, excluding those who said they wouldn’t vote, don’t know or wouldn’t say who they’d vote for, 31 percent said if there were an election tomorrow they’d vote for the Conservatives, an increase of 6 percent since July 23-24, compared with 21 percent (up 2) for Labour, 20 percent (down 3) for the Liberal Democrats, 13 percent (down 4) for the Brexit Party, 8 percent (down 1) for the Greens, 5 percent (up 1) for the Scottish National Party. The 30 to 31 percent support for the Conservatives in the two polls is, of course, still a long way from the 42 percent the party won in the 2017 election in which the Conservatives lost their majority. On the other hand, it represents a substantial recovery from the 8.8 percent they received in the May election for the European Parliament, with much of the increase no doubt coming from some of the 30.5 percent who voted for the Brexit Party in May.

The YouGov poll makes it clear that a substantial portion of the electorate is not personally enchanted with Johnson: 55 percent said they have a negative opinion of him compared with 34 percent who said they have a positive opinion of him; 55 percent said he is untrustworthy compared with 28 percent who said he is trustworthy; 57 percent said they don’t believe most or all or what he says compared with 28 percent who said they believe most or everything he says; and 55 percent said they don’t trust him to make the right decisions for the country on Brexit compared with 32 percent who said they do trust him in that regard.

Nevertheless, the Opinium poll makes it clear that the voters prefer Johnson to Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, by a substantial margin: 38 percent said he would make the best prime minister, compared to 17 percent for Corbyn; 41 percent said he is able to stand up for British interests abroad, compared to 20 percent for Corbyn; 38 percent said he has the nation’s best interests at heart, compared with 27 percent for Corbyn; and 36 percent said he is the best one to negotiate with the EU, compared to 16 percent for Corbyn. The voters may have a negative opinion of Johnson, may regard him as untrustworthy, may not believe what he says, and may not trust him to make the right decisions for the country. But he does have at least one thing going for him: He’s not Jeremy Corbyn.

On the other hand, the polls also suggest that, notwithstanding their skepticism about his character, the public seems to have come around to Johnson’s position in regard to Brexit. For example, the Opinium poll reports that if he’s unable to make changes in the withdrawal agreement that would enable it to be approved by the House, 45 percent of the voters think he should go ahead with Brexit on Oct. 31 even if it means leaving with no deal, compared to 28 percent who think Brexit should, in that case, be cancelled and the UK should stay in the EU, and 13 percent who think Brexit should be delayed until a deal that can be approved by the House is negotiated. And if he is unable to make changes in the withdrawal agreement and calls for the UK to leave the EU without a deal on Oct. 31, and the House votes to force the government to ask for a further extension, 57 percent of the voters think he should call an election, compared with 23 percent who don’t think he should call one.

Likewise, the YouGov poll reports that, in response to a broad question about how Johnson should deal with the issue of Brexit, 30 percent said he should try to renegotiate a better deal with the EU but if one isn’t reached, the UK should leave without a deal in October, compared with 17 percent who said Brexit should be cancelled and the UK should remain in the EU, 16 percent who said there should be a new referendum on whether the UK still wants to leave or wants to remain in the EU after all, 11 percent who said he should stop negotiations with the EU and focus on preparing to leave without a deal, 7 percent who said he should try to renegotiate a better deal with the EU and, if necessary, delay Brexit to provide time to reach a deal, and 3 percent who said he should hold a cross-party citizens’ assembly to try and find an acceptable compromise deal on Brexit.

When asked what should happen if a deal has not been approved by Oct. 31, 40 percent said the UK should leave without a deal, compared with 24 percent who said Britain should cancel Brexit and remain a member of the EU, 14 percent who said Britain should seek to delay Brexit to hold a referendum on whether to stay or leave, and 9 percent who said Britain should seek to delay Brexit to provide more time to negotiate an acceptable deal.

And when asked what they think is most likely to happen in the long term, 37 percent said they think the UK will leave the EU without a deal, compared with 15 percent who think there’ll be a second referendum on whether to remain in or leave the EU, 15 percent who think a new deal will be negotiated and accepted by Parliament, and 9 percent who think the current deal will eventually be accepted by Parliament.  34 per said they don’t know. Only 19 percent think Johnson will be able to renegotiate a better deal than the current one with the EU, compared to 55 percent who think he won’t be able to renegotiate a better deal. And only 21 percent think he will be able to get the House of Commons to approve a deal, while 49 percent think he won’t be able to get it to approve a deal.  But 66 percent believe Johnson would be prepared to take Britain out of the EU without a deal, compared to only 12 percent who think he wouldn’t be prepared to do so.

Is Johnson’s threat to leave the EU on Oct. 31 without a deal credible? The British public clearly thinks it is. The question now is whether the EU will as well, and realizing how costly a no-deal Brexit would be, not only to the British economy but to the economies of the other member states, will devise some way to amend the deal – perhaps through renegotiation of the political declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK and acceptance of a legal codicil pertaining to the applicability of the Irish backstop, the provisions in the withdrawal agreement designed to ensure that the Ireland/Northern Ireland border remains open in all future circumstances – so the House of Commons can approve it by midnight on Oct. 31.


David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and the director of the Yale Program in European Union Studies.