James Johnson is co-founder of J.L. Partners and a senior adviser to Kekst CNC. He previously ran polling in Downing Street under U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.
A consensus has settled that Britain’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss is done for before she even begins. With looming economic chaos and double-digit Labour poll leads, it is an easy conclusion to reach.
But when Truss takes to the steps of 10 Downing Street Tuesday, the Conservative Party will not just get a new prime minister — it will also get another hit of the reset button.
Just as in 2016 when former Prime Minister Theresa May took over from David Cameron, and in 2019 when Boris Johnson gained the leadership, the party will have a narrow window of opportunity to change views among voters.
This is partly because of how important a leader is to the public. When I ask voters in my focus groups about their views of the main parties, they answer about the party leader — sometimes even on first-name terms. Academic research shows us the same: changes of leadership matter, and Truss will get a new chance by default.
This scenario is made more likely by who is on the way out. Johnson was central to the decline in the Conservative position since January. Polling in the so-called Red Wall — a string of constituencies in the north of England once Labour strongholds but who switched to back Johnson in 2019 — found he was the main hesitation when it came to voting Tory, and was the biggest barrier to voting blue in recent conquests in both Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton. Across the country, his ratings were lowest with the critical group holding back the Tory polling position: those who voted Conservative in 2019 but now say they do not know how they would vote.
COVID lockdown-busting parties and habitual lying were major bugbears, but they were almost always linked to Johnson rather than the party as a whole. That major barrier is about to be removed, making it easier for those 2019 waverers to return to the fold.
What of the economy? Surely the economic travails to come mean any sitting government will be sunk?
I am not so sure. British voters blame no single entity for economic woes. Blame for rising prices is diffuse — much more so than in the United States, for example. Ask Americans — as J.L. Partners have just done — and 41 percent blame President Joe Biden and the federal government for inflation, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine trailing with 18 percent of the blame. But in the U.K., it is Putin’s invasion that is seen as most responsible at 34 percent, with the government being blamed by just 31 percent of voters.
A major blunder could change things. But as it stands, opposition leader Keir Starmer and the Labour Party have not landed the economic situation at the Conservative Party’s door in the same way that the Republicans have to Biden, or as Cameron and his former Chancellor George Osborne did to Gordon Brown and Labour in 2008.
Labour’s handling of that economic crash still taints the party, even 14 years on. People in my focus groups still fret that it will be “just like last time” if Labour get back into power, distrusting the party on the economy and borrowing.
Nor are voters convinced by Starmer. The latest Ipsos-MORI political monitor finds his approval rating lower than any recent Labour leader at this point in their tenure bar Michael Foot. This looked respectable in contrast to Johnson, but it may be harder to perform quite so well against a new Conservative leader.
The main qualities the public look for from their leaders in the 2020s are honesty, strength and authenticity. It will require care and calibration, but Truss has a path to come closer to these than Starmer.
If she stands in Downing Street on Tuesday and levels with the public about the challenge ahead and tells them to judge her on results in two years’ time she will not only create a reputational shield for herself but also have the opportunity to make a novel mark on the public — many of whom will be tuning into her for the first time — as someone who gives it to them straight.
Some have suggested that her more libertarian instincts and views, such as decrying a focus on redistribution, make her unelectable. But voters, especially those new Tory converts in the Red Wall, value consistency — a quality they feel is so lacking in modern politicians — as much as an individual policy position. Focus group attendees praise Thatcher and Blair when asked if there are any politicians they admire not because they agreed with them on everything, but because they felt they held beliefs and stuck with them.
One of Truss’ biggest applause lines in one of the early debates was that she is not the slickest media performer, but she gets things done. If she successfully harnesses that sentiment, the ideological gap between her and the public on specific issues or an awkward communication style may matter less.
There are some things she will have to do. A big move on energy is an obvious one. Control and reduction of immigration is another; a key expectation of the Tories’ Brexit-backing base. Efforts to help younger people with housing, with some answers for a whole retinue of disgruntled twenty- and thirty-somethings will also be key to her re-election prospects.
It could all come undone, of course. Moments in the summer would have been similarly disastrous for Truss in a live election campaign environment. The calibre of her team will be crucial.
But public opinion is more nuanced than many currently read it to be. Blame for economic woes is diffuse. Distrust of Labour is still rife. And voters rate strength and consistency above specific policy positions. Labour dominance in 2024 is in no way guaranteed.
There is a pathway for the Conservative Party. If followed, the optimistic scenario for Liz Truss is underpriced.