(Bloomberg Opinion) – Just a few weeks ago, it seemed as if British politics couldn’t talk about anything other than Brexit even after the country formally left the EU. Business as usual was expected to return at an unspecified time in the future.
As everywhere, the corona virus has turned British politics upside down. Unlike Brexit, which continues to share opinions fairly evenly, the coronavirus crisis has led to an outbreak of the recently unfamiliar entity. The Number Cruncher poll (apologizing to Bloomberg) found personal ratings for Boris Johnson – now diagnosed with coronavirus – that have not been seen by a British prime minister since the beginning of Tony Blair’s term in 1997.
A full 72% of eligible voters are satisfied with Johnson’s performance as Prime Minister, 25% are dissatisfied. Ninety-one percent of those who currently support the Conservatives are considered satisfied, as are about half of Labor voters and those who vote for other parties, as well as a large majority of undecided voters. The Johnson government receives similar approval ratings, both overall (73% to 24%) and in the treatment of the coronavirus outbreak (72% to 25%).
The 1,010 interviews were conducted Tuesday through Thursday after Johnson’s Monday TV talk, but were completed before Johnson himself revealed that he had tested positive for the virus. There is evidence in our data that these numbers were higher immediately after the recorded program, which was viewed by about half of the adult population.
The strongest numbers of all are for Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (77% satisfaction). Labor Party chairman Jeremy Corbyn, whose successor will be named on April 4, remains negative (54% unsatisfied).
While war metaphors are now the order of the day, this pandemic is not literally a war – people are killed by an illness, not by each other. But it has many of the same characteristics and a similar sense for “rallying around the flag”. The most obvious of these is unity against a common enemy, with great agreement between the parties and the public. There is also a clear sense of “national effort” and some extremely high government spending along the way.
This does not mean that there has been no controversy – there have been debates about strategy and policy response – although these can easily be drowned out by the enormous situation in a broader sense.
This is not only true for the UK. Surveys in other places have shown that the crisis has also helped established companies in other countries. Emmanuel Macron in France, Italian Giuseppe Conte and Canadian Justin Trudeau also saw ratings improve. Donald Trump’s approval ratings have risen even in the highly polarized United States.
But what is specific to Britain is the perfect storm that gives the conservatives a tailwind. The post-election upswing for Johnson and his party was still very noticeable when the corona virus became the dominant story and was likely exacerbated by the January 31 Brexit. The work was less visible than normal, and if it is visible, it is done through its unpopular leader, who stays in place more than three months after his election defeat.
Combined with the rally-around-the-flag effect, it is not difficult to see why records are broken. Of the likely voters, 54% would vote conservatives, nine points more than in the December elections (excluding Northern Ireland). No conservative government has ever had a survey rating as high as the 1943 writings of author Mark Pack show.
The Labor Party has dropped five points to 28%, giving the Tories their biggest lead in office since Margaret Thatcher’s peak during the 1982 Falklands War. The Liberal Democrats, who postponed their leadership elections to 2021 this week, also fell five points to 7%. .
Of course, no UK election is imminent, and even the local elections scheduled for May have been postponed to next year. In addition, the fact that you are very popular in a war or war-like situation can still lead to an election defeat, as Winston Churchill and George H.W. Bush. And that’s before we look at the likely economic damage to the corona virus, which is at a very early stage.
However, these numbers are important for another reason. The immediate task of Johnson and other leaders is to persuade their citizens to adhere to personal restrictions that would be unthinkable in normal times. Regardless of the broader politics, it can only help to have the public behind you. Great Britain feels oddly united at the moment.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Matt Singh heads Number Cruncher Politics, a non-partisan polling location that predicted the UK election would fail in 2015.
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