The Politics of Coronavirus in the UK

And what it’s meant for Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer

Covid-19 has undoubtedly been one of, if not the most devastating health crisis this country has had to face, and over the last several months almost every aspect of daily life has been disturbed by the pandemic, whether it was a cancelled holiday, making sure you’ve always got a mask on hand or regrettably, the loss of a loved one. Life has been rather crazy for us all, but not many have had a more tumultuous time than the Prime Minister himself. Since lockdown was first implemented Boris Johnson has experienced soaring approval ratings, was diagnosed with the virus, transferred to intensive care, had a son and then saw his approval ratings crash back down. It has been a rollercoaster of a few months for the Prime Minister and while Sir Keir Starmer may not be sat on the front row alongside Boris, he’s certainly feeling the effects of all the corkscrews and loop-the-loops.

If we flick back from anytime between late March to the start of May, the UK’s political climate looked a little different. Boris and the Tories were leading the line against Covid and the public rallied around them in the masses, the Conservatives reached a colossal 26 point lead in the polls over Labour. Just for perspective the Conservatives won an 80-seat majority in last year’s election with just a 12% lead over Labour. So hypothetically if an election were to take place with those sorts of figures, the Tories would likely be knocking on 400 seats if not surpassing that total, an absolute landslide. 

But it wasn’t just the party that rose in popularity, Boris himself was reaching approval ratings not seen since Tony Blair over 2 decades ago. Poll after poll was finding his approval percentage to be around the late 50’s, hitting its peak at 62% approval. Just for a comparison, Jeremy Corbyn rather infamously ended the 2019 General Election campaign with a whopping 71% disapproval rating. The main point being however; it has been many years and multiple Prime Ministers ago since an outright majority of the country approved of the Prime Minister’s performance.

Yet, here we are, approaching seven months later and a widely found consensus amongst the public is that whatever step we took forward against the pandemic, we’ve since taken two steps back again. Daily cases are rising exponentially, October 3rd saw the UK break its record for cases in day; 12,872 individuals tested positive, over double the positive cases from any single day during the first peak. And the UK has well surpassed the 40,000 mark on the death toll, a truly daunting figure.

So, while confirmed cases are on an upward trajectory, the government’s popularity most certainly is not. While he was once viewed as the man on the front lines, doing everything to keep the country healthy and safe, Boris Johnson is no longer garnering such praise. If you were to stop someone on the street and ask them what they thought of Boris Johnson, there’s a fair chance they would say Keir Starmer’s new favourite word ‘Incompetent’ or something far less polite. 

While his approval once stood in the 60’s it has now slumped to an incredibly modest 35% and his disapproval rating has risen, recently being polled at 46%. And to further add to Boris’s woes the Tory party as a whole hasn’t fared much better, sliding from the mid 50’s with a 26 point lead to just 39% in two recent polls. If we were to again think of a hypothetical election we would all but certainly be headed for a hung parliament.

So, with all these voters refusing to ‘back Boris’ and abandoning the Conservative party, it begs the questions where have they gone? And who is the main beneficiary? And put simply, the answer to both questions is… The Labour Party. And while it’s difficult to determine whether voters are flocking to the party who created the NHS in the midst of a health crisis or if they’ve just got nowhere else to go after being fed up with Boris and the Tories, Labour are nevertheless experiencing a surge of popularity in the public arena. 

For the first time since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister last summer, Labour led the Conservatives in a voter intention poll; Labour led by 3 points, 42% to the Tories’ 39%. And although this is certainly no commanding call for a Labour government it really highlights how much grip the Tories have lost on the British electorate. While Labour still only hold just over 200 seats in the House of Commons, Sir Keir Starmer is leading a Labour party which is finally competitive again and able to go toe-to-toe with the Conservatives. 

Better yet for Starmer, when he’s put up against Boris Johnson in a head-to-head matchup, the Prime Minister has lost significant support of the public and many polls point to the public favouring Sir Keir. A recent YouGov poll showed Starmer to hold a rather convincing 9% lead over Johnson.

But the question is, what does is this all mean in the long run? Well that’s hard to say, if the current situation continues where Boris can’t regain the trust of the nation and Labour continue to hang with the Conservatives in the polls then we could be heading for a similar situation to the 2010 General Election where the governing party were ousted but the opposition couldn’t quite scrape up enough seats to form a majority. In this case Boris Johnson would be evicted from Downing Street as his chances of forming a coalition with any other party are mighty slim as the Conservatives have very few parliamentary allies. That leaves Keir Starmer to strike up a deal with the SNP that would ideally lift them over the 326 seat mark, giving Starmer something of a majority to work with as long as he promises another referendum on independence to guarantee SNP support. 

On the flip side, and what is currently more probable, is that the Conservatives cling onto power for a little longer yet with Boris keeping hold of the keys to Number 10. Over the last 7 months the government have weathered the Dominic Cummings Scandal, A-Level results day outrage, Covid chaos at Universities and the deaths of over 42 thousand British civilians, yet they trail Labour in just one single poll, by a mere 3 points. So, by the time the next election rolls around the Conservatives will have hoped to have got at least 2 years of normal, Covid-free governing under their belt, and life will hopefully be more reminiscent of a pre-Covid time, this will likely leave them in good stead for an election. But, if all else fails, at the peak of his unpopularity, with all the aforementioned scandals and government failure, Boris is still a damn sight less unpopular than Jeremy Corbyn, so at least he’ll always have that.

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