How Our Focus Groups Suggest Fresh-Faced Sajid And Rory Could Be A Threat To Boris

While Tory voters we spoke with had concerns about Johnson's competence, Stewart was judged as honest and Javid grounded – raising the question of how fragile Tory trust really is in Boris.

Across two focus groups – both with former Tory voters, one set Remain, the other Leave – it wasn’t hard to get people talking about Boris Johnson, Rory Stewart or Sajid Javid. All are candidates with something about them; a personality, a backstory, a sense of being a bit different. Their identities speak of change and a disruption in the political system.

The candidates who had none of that were rejected out of hand: Michael Gove was tarred by his record of perceived ‘treachery’ – against Boris for the Leavers, teachers for the Remainers – while Jeremy Hunt came across as a politician from central casting. His lily-livered commitment to leave the EU with no deal but a ‘heavy heart’ pleased no one. “Either you believe in something, and then do it, or you don’t,” said one participant.

Hunt’s manicured preciseness contrasted with the authenticity of the more successful candidates. The biggest gasp of the night came watching a video of Richard Madeley accusing Rory of saying something ‘weird’. Rory didn’t deflect or defend. He agreed. The question was a set-up they had seen in a thousand political interviews, but this was something new: a politician who accepted error.

For the more charismatic contenders, the fissure between the groups was not so much about character but position – especially when it came to Brexit. While both groups found Rory honest, Boris interesting and Sajid grounded, they differed profoundly on their policy prospectus.

After three years of trying to find a workable deal, the patience of Tory-leaning Leave voters has run out. In our focus group (and remember, this is just one pair of focus groups), they take it seriously when the EU says it won’t budge, and they have formed the view that the Brexit on offer is not ‘real’. They’re happy to take the plunge on 31 October, deal or no deal.

Whether they will have the same view at 11.59 on 30 October is unclear, but years of unfulfilled doom-mongering has exhausted trust in predictions. Attacking them as ignorant racists has not proved terribly persuasive, but instead cemented a stronger identity as ‘leavers’. It would take an unblemished true Brexiteer to make the case for delay. Otherwise, these voters would prefer to go fast and break things. It is a funny kind of conservatism.

For the Leave voters, Boris was the only candidate they knew that ticked the ‘leave means leave’ box, though they warmed to Dominic Raab when shown his campaign video. Boris’s launch video is perfectly crafted, presenting his authentic tousled persona, but without the actual tousles.His firm defence of his comments about women in burkhas added to his appeal – partly because few found it particularly offensive, partly because they liked his willingness to say what he wanted without fear.

Boris’ biggest vulnerability was not on liberalism but on competence – the Garden Bridge, water cannon and handling of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe all showed how light-hearted bluster could have real world consequences. All three had symbolic power, making them dry tinder his critics could set aflame – if he can waste £43million and still not figure out how to build a bridge across the Thames, how can he be trusted to figure out Brexit?

For the former Remain voters, Rory Stewart and Sajid Javid were the most interesting candidates. These Remain voters were not second referendum supporters – most felt that a vote to leave created a need to leave. The job of government was to do that sensibly, and both candidates offered that. Rory’s CV gave them trust that he could run things and had real world experience, his performance was instantly winning and trustworthy, but he lacked some of the gravitas they want from a prime minister. Javid’s campaign video was on a par with Boris’ in its neat story-telling, and his focus on hard work suggested a different set of values at the heart of government. His proposed solution to the Irish backstop struggled for credibility – if it was so straightforward why hadn’t it been done already?

If both focus groups were equally important to the Tory party, there would be a much bigger discussion to be had about who should take over. But the polls suggests that for every Remain voter the Tories have lost, they’ve lost around 2.5 leave voters. While Remain voters’ concerns about the Tories were broad, for Leavers, effectively delivering Brexit was both necessary and sufficient to win people back.

While many on the left find Boris’ identity politics and casual approach disqualifying, this was not true for either group of Tory target voters. He was someone Leave voters liked and Remain voters would give latitude to, particularly if he can lead as the character from his campaign video rather than the berk in a Union Jack waistcoat dangling from a zipline (another anecdote some participants recalled).

This is just two focus groups – but if they’re representative, then the question for the Tory party (and Boris) is how fragile the trust in him is, particularly if Brexit doesn’t happen on 31 October, or does lead to significant economic disruption. If disaster strikes and the Tories find themselves looking for another reboot before a general election, the freshness of Stewart or Javid might become more relevant.


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