Boris Johnson’s record, “silliness” and “gaffes” are causing ex-Tory voters from both sides of the Brexit divide to question whether “he’s right to rule the country”, a new HuffPost UK-Edelman focus group has found.
But both Remainers and Leavers see him as potentially having the force of personality to push through Brexit in the style of a Winston Churchill-esque wartime leader.
Former Tory voters from ordinary backgrounds in the once-marginal seat of Slough acknowledged Johnson’s “charm”, “straight talking” and “personality” might help persuade the EU to give Britain a better exit deal.
But they also expressed concerns about how his gaffes, which include “altering” the life of a British political prisoner, wasting money on failed projects, and language which can stray into “racism” and “homophobia” would “reflect on us” as a country.
It led one Brexit-supporter to suggest: “He’s one of the lads but I just don’t think he’s right to rule the country.”
The focus group participants were all middle-aged voters who largely voted for the Tories in 2017 but had now deserted the party, and were split into two groups – one that voted Remain and one that voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.
After hearing the candidates’ biographies and viewing their campaign videos and interview footage, Johnson was named as the person most likely to make these voters return to the party having abandoned it in May’s European elections.
Overall the Tory leadership favourite won the backing of a third of Remainers in one group, and more than 60% of Leavers in the other.
The focus group of ordinary, working people in the Berkshire town backed up Johnson’s claims that he is the candidate to win back the support the Tories are currently haemorrhaging for failing to deliver Brexit.
And while one voter found his calmness about a no-deal Brexit “frightening”, and Remainers overwhelmingly favour a deal, both sides acknowledged that the “embarrassing” process of EU withdrawal needs to be brought to a close.
Among the findings were:
- Candidates’ promises to renegotiate Theresa May’s Brexit deal are not trusted by either side.
- The Leavers who did not support Johnson placed tribal loyalty to the Brexit cause over anything else, backing Dominic Raab despite knowing little about him.
- Remainers who initially split almost equally between favouring Johnson and finding him the most off-putting candidate eventually found themselves warning to “refreshing” candidates Sajid Javid and Rory Stewart after learning about their “journeys” in life.
- Michael Gove was almost universally disliked by both Remainers and Leavers, with one voter remarking that he “did the dirty on Boris” and so “represents everything that’s wrong” with self-serving politicians.
- Voters from both sides of the Brexit had little time for second-placed candidate Jeremy Hunt, who was seen as “privileged” and unremarkable, while other candidates barely registered.
Trust on Brexit
All of the remaining six candidates in the Tory leadership race have vowed to renegotiate the Brexit deal in some way, with all but Stewart just about leaving no deal on the table as a potential last resort if they fail, although Gove and Hunt are open to another delay.
But neither Leavers nor Remainers trust their promises on the Irish backstop, asking why the candidates could not have put their plans into action while in cabinet.
As one, Yvonne – a Remain-voting mother-of-two – put it: “You get the feeling they are all clutching at straws, because if they all had this amazing idea, why has Theresa May not?”
Commenting on Hunt’s plan, Leaver Rosie agreed: “I just wonder why he hasn’t said that to Theresa May, what he would have done.”
That left much of the discussion focused on the candidates’ personalities, records and alignment in the 2016 referendum.
Boris Johnson’s Churchill moment?
Johnson garnered far more support than any other candidate, with three out of nine Remainers and five out eight Leavers backing him as the candidate most likely to win their support in a general election.
He was initially described by Remainers as a “fool”, a “manchild”, “a marmite character”, “sadly the most popular”, “a favourite amongst rich people” and “in Farage’s pocket”.
But even some recognised his unique abilities, and backed suggestions that he is the right leader for the almost war-like crisis of Brexit.
Karen, a mother of two who works as a goldsmith, compared Johnson to Donald Trump, saying his pitch to voters was “a bit like let’s make Britain great”.
And Ryan, who works in logistics, suggested Johnson may have the “personality” to wring concessions from the EU: “he can charm people, he can speak to people and he will be able to sway people to back him”.
Yvonne said: “Maybe we need someone like him, like we had Churchill to get us over the war, to get us through Brexit, in that kind of way you need someone with that mindset.”
Andrea, a mother-of-two who works part-time in business gifts, then added: “And then get rid of him quickly like Churchill.”
Even Leavers recognised Johnson’s reputation, with Matthew describing him as a “cartoon clown”, but on the whole favouring him for his ability to have a “normal conversation”.
A matter of trust
Voters on both sides however have not forgotten the former London mayor’s long history of gaffes.
The Leave group independently recalled him appearing to jeopardise the freedom of British mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a political prisoner in Iran, wasting £43m on the failed Garden Bridge project and needless spending on a water cannon he was not allowed to deploy.
And neither side liked his comments about burka-wearing Muslim women looking like letterboxes. George, an aerospace worker who is married with two children, was concerned how it would “reflect on us as a country”.
Andrea said Johnson’s behaviour would “get in the way” and “the big issues would be swept under the carpet as it would be all about Boris Johnson latest gaffe”.
Brexiteer Rosie, who is divorced and retired, acknowledged his “likeability” but said “his silliness lets him down sometimes, doesn’t it?”, and criticised his “racism” and “homophobic” comments.
“He’s one of the lads but I just don’t think he’s right to rule the country,” said Jill, a grandmother who works in social housing said.
Leaver Matthew added: “That’s a really good analogy, you do feel like you can warm to him, you do feel like you can have a conversation – but could you trust him, and is he a leader?”
Another Brexiteer, mother-of-three Sarah, who works with children with special needs, picked up on the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case: “That’s one person and that’s all he had to do, what’s he going to do with the rest of our lives?”
But like Trump supporters in the US, many Leavers were hoping he could temper his behaviour in the highest office.
Sarah: “Maybe we have to make mistakes to grow so if he comes along to me I would have to say ‘Boris you’re going to have to grow up and step up to the mark’, maybe he would have the support to do that.”
Rosie added: “Maybe he might do that once he gets in.”
And some suggested his past mistakes were “priced in” anyway.
Matthew, who auctions classic cars, said: “It’s relevant but we knew all that before”. Debbie added: “And he’s still likeable, isn’t he?”
Gove and Hunt lack support
Gove was named as the most off-putting candidate by five out of nine Remainers and six out of eight Leavers, despite running the Vote Leave campaign alongside Johnson in 2016.
His past cocaine use was barely an issue for the voters, who instead focused on his record as education secretary and his knifing of Johnson in the 2016 leadership race.
“It seems he did the dirty on Boris,” Matthew said.
“He just represents everything that’s wrong now, the infighting, the backstabbing, everything that is not for the country but for themselves.”
While some voters were impressed by his back story – being born into care, adopted, and going to state school before getting a scholarship – others were scathing about his inability to translate his background into his politics.
Remainer Caroline, a senior quantity surveyor, said: “He should be a bit more understanding when he’s made all those cuts, it kind of makes me dislike him more.”
Azfar, who is in property and married with two children, said: “He knows how it is to be in state education so he should be putting more money into education, instead of the other way around.”
Hunt meanwhile was seen as bland, “privileged” and a “typical Tory”.
And a few voters turned against him over his work as health secretary.
“He’s the Michael Gove of the NHS isn’t he?” Caroline said.
And Ryan added: “I really went off him with that whole junior doctors thing.”
Rory Stewart’s impressive CV
At the beginning of the focus groups, barely anyone had heard of Stewart, while Javid was being confused with London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
But after learning about their “journeys”, Remainers backed Stewart over any other candidate, with four votes, while Javid came in third behind Johnson with two votes.
Although they garnered no final votes from Leavers, both were also spoken about favourably.
Many voters respected Stewart’s military service and experience helping govern two provinces in Iraq.
Many in the Remain group said his experience during the war showed he was a “good negotiator”.
Yvonne said: “He’s diplomatic, and he has that compassion.
“In Iraq no one wanted the British Army there, so to be a governor and actually stick that job out is hard.
“My ex-husband was in Iraq at that time and he said Iraq was awful, no one wants you there.”
Caroline said “it also shows he can lead, we need a leader.”
George said he was “quite experienced”, whereas Yvonne said he has “leadership skills” and could “make those tough decisions.”
Leavers and Remainers alike also praised Stewart’s 21-month walk across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal, during which he stayed in 500 villages.
Remainer Afzar said it showed he was “well-grounded”, while Leaver Sarah said: “If he’s travelled for 21 months through Pakistan, India and Afghanistan he’s lived a very simple life hasn’t he? He knows poverty and he’s seen stuff like this, which I think perhaps some of these people ought to have seen because I don’t think they get it.”
Several also valued Stewart’s honesty in interviews, admitting his mistakes when making up statistics.
“You can’t teach that kind of authenticity and humility, you’ve either got it or you haven’t,” said Caroline .
But many of the voters, few of whom had heard of him at the beginning of the evening, suggested it was too soon.
“I think (Stewart) is one to watch, and I think he could have a good career – I wouldn’t be surprised if he got a bit of support when they whittle them down but I think maybe it’s too early for him,” said Ryan.
“I’d put him as foreign secretary with all his travel and his languages,” Keith added.
Javid could widen the Tories’ appeal
Like Stewart, Javid’s humble beginnings as the working class son of a Pakistani immigrant bus driver who was the first in his family to go to university won him respect.
Remainer Carly, a business manager who has three sons, said: “I like his life story, that he’s worked really hard, worked his way up and carved out a career for himself, I think that speaks volumes.
“I think he’d make the Conservative party more appealing to younger voters particularly, I think people would be more inclined to vote Conservative knowing his history.”
Leaver Keith, a father-of-one who works for a distribution company, meanwhile said his life “spoke to Conservative values, that if you work hard you can do well in your life”, while Rosie said he was “more normal” than Johnson or Hunt.
Javid’s claim that his Muslim background can help him unite a divided country was, however, met with scepticism.
Yvonne said: “I feel like that’s a lovely dream but I’m not sure how well that would go down, being very honest, sadly.”
Leavers meanwhile worried about his inexperience and his handling of the Shamima Begum case, when he stripped the young Islamic State bride of her British passport.
“I wonder at the time if he knew exactly what he was doing or whether it was just a show really to show that he was tough,” said Nick, a semi-retired grandfather working in telesales.
Image really mattered. None of the Leavers supported Dominic Raab but after seeing his short campaign video they liked how he looked and spoke, and more backed him.
Rory Stewart was described as looking “weird” and “like Zippy” from Rainbow.
Remainers actively recoiled in horror when seeing Gove appear on screen in a campaign video, while some voters said they couldn’t take their eyes off Johnson’s new, neatly shorn haircut.
Hunt meanwhile was described as “slimy” by one Leaver, Keith, who added: “There’s just something about his smile”.
NOTE: Two focus groups were held in Slough. All participants voted Conservative in 2015 and none would vote Conservative now. None had ruled out voting Conservative again. One focus group of nine people had all voted Remain, the other (of eight people) had all voted Leave. Participants were 35-65 and a mix of men and women.