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Boris Johnson Is Wrong To Blame Double By-Election Loss On Midterm Blues, Say Pollsters


4 min read

Several pollsters have dismissed Boris Johnson’s claim that his party’s double by-election loss was a normal part of the electoral cycle, and have suggested that the Prime Minister’s character was a driving force behind the losses.

The Liberal Democrats overtuned a huge Tory majority to win Tiverton and Honiton, while Labour was able to re-take Wakefield, which they had held for more than 80 years before it fell to the Tories in 2019. In the wake of the results, Johnson loyalist Oliver Dowden resigned from the position of party chairman, insisting "we cannot continue with business as usual".

Speaking from Rwanda on Friday morning, Johnson said that, while he did not want to “minimise the importance of what voters were saying”, it was “true” that governments typically lose midterm by-elections.

“We’ve got to recognise that there is more that we've got to do and we certainly will. We will keep going, addressing the concerns of people, until we get through this patch,” he told reporters.

But Tory peer and elections expert Lord Hayward said the challenge facing the government was much “broader than that”, and suggested that Johnson’s character may be a leading cause in the two losses.

“There's no question that Boris, from all the reports, was coming up on the doorstep in both Wakefield and Tiverton and that is the issue,” he told PoliticsHome.

This was echoed by James Johnson, co-founder of JL Partners and former head of polling for Downing Street under Theresa May, who agreed that voters in both Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton were largely driven to vote against the Tories by anger with Johnson.

“We've got to look at this in connection with everything else that we know from the polls, from the other by-elections, and from the local elections," he explained.

"That, to me, seems to paint a very clear picture that this is not just a midterm blues effect.” 

The Prime Minister’s approval rating has been hit hard by recent controversies over partygate and his response to the cost of living crisis. According to polling by YouGov, Johnson has an approval rating of 24 per cent as of 2 June, two points lower than where it was the previous month.

He has also faced discontent in his own party, having narrowly avoided an attempt to oust him earlier this month when Tory MPs voted by 211 to 148 to keep him in charge.

Chris Curtis, head of political polling at Opinium, said figures this low “are the kind of approval ratings a Prime Minister doesn't normally come back from”.

He also dismissed suggestions that the by-election losses were midterm blues. “Governments face problems midterm and then they bounce back. But, the question is, why do they bounce back?” he told PoliticsHome

“It's because they come up with a strategy that appeals to the British public and turns things around and because they're in government, they have the ability to do so. 

“You saw David Cameron do that with the long-term economic plan and repeating that until his ministers were literally vomiting as they said it. But, what's Boris Johnson's plan to do this? I’m not sure.”

But despite securing a comfortable victory in Wakefield, Labour fortunes do not look entirely in favour of forming the next government. 

Lord Hayward dismissed suggestions by Labour that their victory in Wakefield was a sign they were on track to win the next election.

The party regained the West Yorkshire seat from the Conservatives in a major by-election victory for the party, having previously lost control of it in 2019 for the first time since 1932.

Following the result, Labour leader Keir Starmer said he "couldn't be prouder of this historic moment on the step towards the next Labour government".

But Lord Hayward insisted that the victory was “not a brilliant result for Labour”. 

“It was an adequate result. But it was probably not bad for Keir. There's been heavy mutterings about him, and it will put some of those mutterings to rest,” he said.

“They can't say any more than it is a good first step. It's not a brilliant result, despite what Keir Starmer says."

Curtis added that “things are certainly not as good for Labour as they are bad for the Conservatives".

He continued: “Whatever polling question you ask at the moment, what we're seeing, as opposed to 12 months ago, is the Conservatives are down dramatically and Labour are up. But, Labour are up by nowhere near as much as the Conservatives are down. 

“It doesn't matter if you ask, who do you think would make the best Prime Minister? It doesn't matter if you ask, who do you trust most on the economy? That's the general response you're getting from the public at the moment.”

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