If Boris Johnson wins the election, his popularity will bear comparison to just one recent Prime Minister: Tony Blair in 2005. Within two years, Teflon Tony was writing his memoirs.
The latest Ipsos Mori polling has Johnson’s approval rating running at around -20. If our focus group with undecided women voters is a good guide, yesterday’s handling of the scandal at Leeds General Infirmary will not have improved the position. The word that came up again and again was “empathy” – and his apparent lack of it. To this group, he looked like a guy in it for himself. For a leader who has made his name through authenticity, in a time when trust is increasingly about character over accuracy, this is a significant breach in the dam.
Johnson already has a particular problem with women. His approval rating is three times worse among women than among men. The Tory lead is three times bigger among men than among women. This is a long term worry for a party that has had men take up 88% of their major broadcast media slots. The departure of politicians like Ruth Davidson and Amber Rudd is not going to help.
“If we end up with a hung parliament the odds are it will be women’s votes and Johnson’s failure to understand issues in public services that are the key cause.”
In our focus group, participants felt Labour had a greater understanding of issues that disproportionately affect women, in particular around childcare for women who want, or need, to work. Women are a third more likely than men to say the NHS is a top issue for them in deciding their vote. The Tories are going to need to work hard to grow their share of the female vote, win or lose.
This gender gap also raises significant questions for a Labour party that might be considering new leadership on Friday. Their relative success among women is a complete turnaround from the picture when New Labour was formed, when Labour’s under-performance among women had profoundly limited Labour’s ability to compete. Now, the party needs to strengthen its position among women but also find ways to bring men back into the Labour fold.
Winning men doesn’t require a male leader. Neither Theresa May nor Margaret Thatcher had trouble winning support from men. However the sexist commentary Jo Swinson has faced in this campaign shows the unfair tilt in the playing field. She is tarred as “bossy” and a “headgirl” in a way ambitious, if not outstanding, male politicians of her generation are not.
The way our focus group of undecided voters swung towards Labour suggests that this talk of new leadership may, perhaps, be getting somewhat ahead of where we will be on Friday morning. The polls show stable and significant Conservative leads. Remain has not been the galvanising force the Liberal Democrats hoped and the signs are that tactical anti-Tory voting may be limited in scale, and in any case will be uncoordinated and inefficient. But, if we do end up with a hung parliament the odds are it will be women’s votes and Johnson’s consistent failure to understand, let alone address, the issues in public services that are the key cause.
James Morris is a former pollster and managing director of public affairs at Edelman.