The Conservatives have been ahead of Labour every month in our polls since May 2015, and 2016 is no different. In fact, their lead at the end of October was greater than it has been for seven years, at 18 points. But that shouldn’t be a surprise – it’s obvious we are in a honeymoon period following Theresa May’s ascension to Prime Minister in the summer, and honeymoon periods in politics are not exactly unheard of. The more important question is does this honeymoon look any different from previous ones, and should we expect it to last?
For the Conservatives, public opinion seems to be pretty much in line with previous honeymoons. Theresa May’s party has an average lead over Labour in her first three months of 12 points, which compared with others we’ve seen since 1979, comes in at mid-table (although if we strictly define honeymoons as for a new Prime Minister, it looks better than everyone except Tony Blair). A ten-point lead in the first three months after 2005 didn’t presage a win for Labour five years later, but a fifteen-point lead for the Conservatives after 1987 did – though of course it’s foolish to pretend these make up an immutable law. There is however one notable difference in the pattern – both the Conservatives from 1983 to 1992 and Labour from 1997 to 2005 suffered from a form of political gravity, with each successive honeymoon lower than the last. Theresa May’s honeymoon, on the other hand, is much larger than David Cameron’s after both 2010 and 2015.
We see a similar picture in Theresa May’s personal ratings. Satisfaction with the way she is doing her job is very much par for the course for a new Prime Minister – not as high as Tony Blair or John Major achieved when they first took office (it is often forgotten how high Mr Major’s ratings were at the start), but they are better than Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and otherwise pretty similar to David Cameron’s after 2010. In other ways too, some of the fundamentals remain unchanged. Just like David Cameron was, Theresa May is much more liked than her party (in fact, at 60% her likeability score is higher than he ever achieved), but on the other hand her succession has not changed the Conservative’s branding problem she identified in that famous ‘nasty party’ speech in 2002. Like David Cameron, she seems to have captured many of the key traits the British public most wants in a party leader, such as being capable and having sound judgement, while not suffering from some of the same disadvantages as being seen as out of touch or more style than substance.
Naturally, it is likely that Theresa May’s image will suffer if the economy falters or the government is hit by splits and scandals, and all the data above helps put her current honeymoon into perspective; all other things being equal, it should be taken on its own terms – broadly par for the course for a new Prime Minister, with little to suggest it can be relied on to last forever. But, of course, just like any marriage, not all other things are equal, and there is another partner to take into account.
Jeremy Corbyn has been leader of the Labour party for more than a year now, so probably out of his honeymoon period, and despite his critics within the party, attempts at a divorce haven’t got past the flirtation stage. So what do the public think? There has been little change in Labour’s voting share since then – stuck around 30% for most of the last year (the Conservative’s increased share is mostly at the expense of UKIP) – but the detailed image ratings are more worrying for the party. In the last year, Jeremy Corbyn’s personal ratings on being capable, good in a crisis, having a lot of personality and a clear vision for Britain are all down, and he is further behind Theresa May than he was Cameron.
Further, although more people now say they like Labour than a year ago (albeit with one in four saying they like the party but not the leader), there are signs that the party as a whole is suffering too. Compared with this time last year, Labour’s ratings on key competency issues such as having a good team of leaders and being fit to govern have fallen, while a very high 82% think it is divided. Labour is dropping on some ‘softer’ issues too, notably ‘understanding the problems facing Britain’ and ‘looking after the interests of people like me’, where the Conservatives are ahead for only the second time in the last 33 years. Indeed, on many ratings Labour is doing worse than under Ed Miliband, so while the object of affection may have changed, the public’s fundamental doubts about Labour’s readiness for government show no signs of doing so.
This honeymoon, then, looks like a lopsided one. It may well be Labour’s weaknesses, rather than the Conservatives’ strengths, that last the longer.
Image credit: By UK Home Office – https://www.flickr.com/photos/ukhomeoffice/21450866922, CC BY 2.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51065934