A personal note
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or you don’t follow us on Twitter*, you’ll know that Theresa May is a popular politician. So popular is she, in fact, that six months into her tenure as Prime Minister, she is still well above 0 in the polls – something that while unimpressive at first glance, is almost unprecedented for a British Prime Minister. Indeed, when she came to power after the EU referendum which ousted David Cameron, her approval ratings were astonishingly high.
Her popularity, though, has been accentuated by the relative unpopularity of her opponent, Jeremy Corbyn. Unlike Theresa May, his polls upon becoming Labour leader never were really very good; and even after his re-election in September of last year, he experienced no kind of bounce. Since July, our new Prime Minister has stayed leagues ahead of her rival.
And this has distilled into the party polls, as well: in the Polling Digest poll of polls, the Tories’ lead has hovered around the 10 point mark since the end of July; it currently stands at 11 points.
However, when polls are reported in the papers, most of the ink is spilled analysing each poll on its own or comparing it to the previous one. What we think is most useful, however, is look at longer term trends. So, that’s what we’ve done here.
And the results are quite surprising. Here’s our roundup:
1. Since Theresa May became Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn’s approval ratings have been consistently terrible. The graphic below shows a collection of Opinium’s approval ratings for the Labour leader. And, with a little wobble towards the end of 2016 consisting of a fall and then a rise, he has polled at a net figure of somewhere in the low 20s below zero.
2. While Theresa May is still popular, her approval ratings have fallen – quietly – by quite a margin. Opinium’s first poll of the Conservative Prime Minister gave her a net approval rating of +31, with 46% of Brits saying she was doing a good job and only 15% disagreeing. That figure has now fallen 20 points to +11. Interestingly, the fall in the net figure appears to be quite one-sided: the percentage of voters who approve of the way she has been doing the job has fallen by only 6 points, but the percentage disapproving of her has risen from 15% to 29%.
3. The result: while the Prime Minister’s lead on Jeremy Corbyn was a huge 55 points at the start of her term, it is now down to 38 – a drop of 17 points. This is mainly down to her steady decline and her opponent’s consistent ratings. We should be careful, though, not to try and present this as a ‘loss’ for the PM or a ‘win’ for the Leader of the Opposition. Although Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity is baked into most people’s considerations of him, the decline in his approval deficict shouldn’t be treated as a coup: he is still monumentally unpopular, while Theresa May’s positive approval ratings are unprecedented at this point in a Prime Minister’s term.
4. But what happens when people are forced to choose between the two party leaders? Although there is some debate about this, the consensus in the polling industry is that asking voters to pick from two choices of Prime Minister is a better measure of popularity than just approval ratings. At the end of the day, a general election – if it is about personalities at all – is a choice between two people; voters can disapprove of the Prime Minister, but what matters is who they’d pick to run the country. For Theresa May, the trend is quite similar: a very high starting point followed by a decline – though a smaller one than in the approval polls. But while Jeremy Corbyn’s approval ratings have been fairly steady, his position in these two-choice polls has fallen a little. As such, the Prime Minister’s lead over him has fallen to a lesser degree than in the approval polls.
5. It may be too early to say, but the latest two-choice poll has a 3 point uptick for the Labour leader; is this evidence that his reinvention as a left-wing populist is beginning to work? Or is it a reflection of a week where the NHS was dominating the news agenda? Watch this space.