A year after the 2017 general election, many British voters give Prime Minister Theresa May and her Conservative government failing grades, according to our new national Deltapoll survey.
When asked how they would vote if a general election were held today, we found that the governing Conservatives trailed Labour by 7 percent, garnering only 37 percent of the vote compared with Labour’s 44 percent. Less than one person in three reported being satisfied with May’s performance. Only about one in five believed that her government is honest and trustworthy. Majorities see her as incompetent (57 percent), uncaring (63 percent) and untrustworthy (59 percent). On a 0- (really dislike) to-10 (really like) scale, voters gave her an average score of only 4.1.
These negative sentiments are widespread across all age, educational, gender, income and social class categories.
The troubled Brexit negotiations — and the accompanying economic pessimism — are hurting May’s popularity
Why are so many people dissatisfied with their prime minister? The prime suspect is ongoing uncertainty about the protracted Brexit negotiations. Not surprisingly, people who most strongly approve of European Union membership have the most negative views of May, while those who most strongly disapprove of the E.U. are the second most negative group. But regardless of how voters feel about the E.U., they are dissatisfied with May.
That’s amplified by widespread economic pessimism. Although the economy is doing reasonably well, fully one-half expect it to get worse in the coming year; only one in five expect it to get better. Forecasts about personal finances are similarly bleak.
Some of this economic pessimism comes because citizens are worried about the consequences of Brexit. Former prime minister David Cameron and his Conservative government repeatedly made doomsday economic forecasts about Brexit during the 2016 referendum. Scores of prominent economic experts joined political heavyweights (including Barack Obama) in trying to convince voters that economic Armageddon awaited should they vote “Leave.” Many voters bought the argument.
Gloomy economic assessments are decidedly bad news for governing parties and their leaders. May’s average like-dislike score (on a 0-10 scale) is a robust 6.7 among the small minority who think the economy will be much better next year. But the more pessimistic people are, the more they dislike May — among those thinking things will be much worse, her rating is only 1.6. The pattern between attitudes toward one’s personal financial situation and feelings about the prime minister is identical.
Britons who feel left out of the social compact dislike May strongly
When asked if the government treats people like themselves fairly, 57 percent disagree and only 26 percent agree. Large majorities — ranging from 59 percent to 75 percent — also agree that economic inequality, social injustice, corporate greed and bank profiteering are major problems.
These perceptions are strongly related to feelings about the prime minister. Those who don’t worry about the issues listed above like May; those who do dislike her heartily.
The effects of economic pessimism and populist disaffection persist when other factors that influence support for the prime minister are considered.
In turn, people who dislike May are much less likely to say they will vote Conservative in the next general election than are those who say that they like her.
From Theresa to Boris?
Conservative strategists are well aware of May’s plummeting popularity. Some observers believe the Conservatives will replace her as their party leader and prime minister before the upcoming party conference in late September.
However, replacing May is far from a surefire solution for reviving her party’s fortunes. Conservative supporters in the electorate continue to be deeply divided about whether Britain should remain in the European Union. Negotiations with the E.U. remain troubled. And Labour’s 2017 election campaign showed how easy it is to portray a Conservative government as a tightfisted and out-of-touch political-economic elite. With no Brexit deal on the horizon, economic pessimism gripping much of the electorate and populism a potent political force, the Conservatives’ problems probably will not be solved by simply changing their leader.
They may dump May nonetheless — perhaps replacing her with outspoken former London mayor Boris Johnson, one of Brexit’s champions in the 2016 E.U. referendum. Johnson recently resigned as foreign minister and this strategically separates him from May’s government at an opportune time.
Aware of this possibility, May’s supporters are attacking him as an Islamaphobe for his recent comments about women wearing the burqa “looking like bank robbers and letter boxes.” May has called for an official inquiry and Johnson has refused to retract his remarks and apologize. In late summer, British politics are definitely heating up.
Here’s how we did our research
The data were gathered July 6-13, 2018, in a nationally representative Internet survey, with a weighted national sample size of 2,540 people living in England, Scotland and Wales, 18 or older. The survey is part of a research project funded by a U.S. National Science Foundation grant to two of us, Marianne Stewart and Harold Clarke. Field work was conducted by Deltapoll, supervised by its director, Joe Twyman. The survey questionnaire may be downloaded from their site.
Harold Clarke is the Ashbel Smith professor in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas and co-author with Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley of Brexit – Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Matthew Goodwin (@GoodwinMJ) is a professor in the department of politics and international relations at the University of Kent.
Marianne Stewart is a professor in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Paul Whiteley is a professor in the department of government at the University of Essex.