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Savanta ComRes PMQs Focus Group – 26th Jan 2022

Chris Hopkins Political Research Director 26 January 2022

Boris comes out fighting and Keir fails to land a blow

If someone had told me before our inaugural Savanta ComRes PMQs focus group that, when asked at the end, every single participant would say Boris Johnson was victorious over Keir Starmer in PMQs despite the day before finding out the Met Police were launching a criminal investigation into his alleged law-breaking, I’d have laughed in their face.

In the end the results were unanimous, with even the most staunchly anti-Boris participant reluctantly conceding that the Prime Minister had ‘won’ PMQs

Starmer, a lawyer by trade and usually so meticulous and investigative in his questioning, would surely have the PM on toast in the face of the allegations leveled against the guests, staff and residents of No.10 Downing Street? But that’s not how it played out and the overwhelming, albeit sometimes reluctant, admission from our focus group of swing Conservative voters was that the Prime Minister outperformed the leader of the opposition – and it wasn’t even close.

“It’s a full house, yeah, I’d probably say Boris won.” – Megan

Our group, who all voted Conservative in 2019, describe their decision on how to vote that December as being between the lesser of two evils; yes, some trusted Johnson to get Brexit done, and yes, some would describe themselves as historic Conservative voters, but it was Jeremy Corbyn – who came up in this group more often than I’d have predicted – that this group tended to describe as a push factor away from Labour, as opposed to Boris Johnson being a pull factor towards the Conservatives. Johnson as some sort of electioneering magician was not the impression this group gave, although being the antithesis to Corbyn absolutely helped.

“Previously I’ve actually voted Labour but in 2019 I was concerned about Corbyn and him leading the country. I am at the moment sort of swinging back to Labour but the main reason [for my vote in 2019] was that I didn’t want Corbyn.” – Charlotte

But now this group have moved away from the Conservatives, either to other parties or, as I’ve written about in our polling, towards being undecided as to how they’d vote at the next election. Partygate has certainly had an impact on that, and perhaps has been the decisive straw to break the proverbial, with some saying that the loss of trust is irreversible, and that they feel hoodwinked by the Prime Minister.

“I mean obviously this Partygate is a terrible thing. I voted Conservative for many years and I just feel that Boris has shot himself in the foot.” – Ronnie

 But for a few others it’s also about his pandemic record and that, despite a successful vaccine rollout, the death toll and pressures on the NHS, along with a feeling of general mismanagement and lack of strong decision-making, put them off Boris Johnson the man.

“I do think that everything in the last couple weeks has been hideous. It’s grotesque. It makes me feel incredibly ashamed about championing Boris in 2019.” – Holly

Yet the PM came out of this group more favourably than Keir Starmer. Participants spoke pre-PMQs about how Partygate, rightly or wrongly, is overshadowing issues that really matter to voters – the cost of living, energy prices, fuel prices, inflation – and that they’d hope that PMQs wasn’t dominated by Partygate.

“I think the cancer of Boris Johnson and his cronies, has spread through the entire country. He cannot tell people to wear a mask or not wear a mask, which is like telling people choose whatever side of the road you wish to drive on. He has proven he is not a leader.” – Mike

They therefore felt somewhat reassured by the Prime Minister’s responses to Starmer’s questions; yes, they hated his deferral to the Met investigation (but understood the reasons why), but much preferred his assertions that the Conservatives in government were getting on with the job.

“There are other issues which they could focus on. Inflation is one, energy prices is another. No one is talking about it and that it hits the common man.” – Pulkit

There was a distinct lack of feeling from this group that Labour would be better placed to deal with the cost of living crisis, and Starmer’s line about how the cabinet are not getting on with their jobs and instead being “wheeled out” to save the PM’s didn’t seem to land.

“My belief is a Labour government will be one hell of a lot worse than a Conservative government.” – Ronnie

They want to see more from Keir Starmer, and that often felt like the difference between converting some of these undecided voters in to Labour voters. Boris Johnson and the perceptions the group, and country, now may have of him, can only push the electorate so far, and Labour need to rely on Keir Starmer to do the rest.

“[Ian Blackford] was more passionate than Keir Starmer, and I know that’s not Keir’ sort of approach, but I just think, you know, we needed to press [Boris Johnson] a lot more.” – Anna

This group wanted to see more passion from him, they felt he wasn’t forceful enough at the ballot box, and while we didn’t specifically press on the Captain Hindsight moniker, none of this group gave the impression that Starmer was a leader they could believe in. Some felt as though they may still switch to Labour but – in a weird twist of fate to 2019 – it seems as though it’s more likely for Johnson to put them off the Conservatives than for Starmer to attract them to Labour.

“[Ian Blackford’s] very passionate, a very eloquent speaker, and I think he was probably the most convincing of any opposition.” – Holly

Some even said they found Ian Blackford a more effective questioner and opposition to the government during this PMQs than Starmer – if that isn’t a wake-up call to Starmer apologists then I don’t know what is.

In the end the results were unanimous, with even the most staunchly anti-Boris participant reluctantly conceding that the Prime Minister had ‘won’ PMQs over Keir Starmer. And while there are darker days for Johnson and his government ahead, if Starmer keeps failing to land punches, those voters who are saying they’d consider switching away from the Tories may be easier to win back if the PM can ride out the rest of this scandal.

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