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Savanta ComRes PMQs Focus Group – 2nd Feb 2022

Chris Hopkins Political Research Director 2 February 2022

Johnson impresses again while Starmer’s style divides

To Partygate or not to Partygate? That was the question ahead of Wednesday’s (2 February) PMQs: would Starmer spend another entire session holding his opposite number to account on Partygate, would he split his questions between that and other issues, or would he focus on something else entirely?

Starmer feels a little damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t...

He went with the latter and, among our group at least, it’s difficult to know what the right course of action would have been.

“Sadly Boris is the lion that roars. Even though it’s roaring a load of rubbish, it still makes you think, ‘Oh yeah, he owned the room’.” – Tasha

When asked what they would question the PM on if they were Keir Starmer today, many went for things personal to them – what is politics if it isn’t personal – and only one would have asked something even related to Partygate. Yet this group, who all voted Conservative at the 2019 election but would vote for another party or are undecided if an election were tomorrow, are incredibly furious about Partygate. They are incensed not just at the principle of a government and Prime Minister not following their own rules, but also at the lies and cover-up attempted by the Prime Minister ever since.

“Partygate has rolled on and on and on to such an extent that we hardly hear about anything else.” – James 

Yet, on the other hand, there is still a desire for the Prime Minister and the government to move on and get on with the job at hand. I think it will be increasingly difficult for the Leader of the Opposition to walk this incredibly tricky tightrope of balancing public anger over Partygate with attempting to hold the government at account on everything else; Starmer feels a little damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.

“I’m fuming about Partygate. Why make a rule and then pretend that you didn’t know what was allowed. You went on live TV and told us the rules. But there are more things that need to be worried about than partying.” – Tasha

This ultimately, though, doesn’t mask the doubts these potential swing voters have over the Labour leader. Stylistically he isn’t seen to necessarily have the presence of character that people seem to want from their leaders. His forensic way of asking questions in PMQs and his relatively calm nature at the Despatch Box are applauded but, still, people want to see more zest from the Labour leader.

“Starmer comes across as being reasonable and it’s not the sort of forum for sounding reasonable.” – James

The flipside, of course, is Boris Johnson, and while he is seen to be a liar, he does seem to possess some of the verve that the electorate want to see more of from Keir Starmer. Further, the Prime Minister’s perceived lies do not tend to differentiate himself from other politicians; indeed, the group struggled to identify why Boris Johnson’s supposed lies are any worse than those of his predecessors or other politicians.

“Boris Johnson seems to handle PMQs a little bit better than Keir Starmer does. I am ready to change who I vote for, I’ve voted Conservative all my life, but Keir Starmer seems unable to get a grip of this Prime Minister and force the issue to bring him to resign.” – Caroline

This dichotomy between the leaders was illustrated by asking the group who ‘won’ the session. Some felt as though Boris Johnson, with his punchier responses, highlighting his government’s record, cut way above Starmer, while others found Starmer’s approach more palatable and Johnson’s deflection of the questions problematic.

“Boris Johnson had nothing to say. I preferred Starmer’s approach, personally.” – Cheyenne

Praise was, once again, reserved for Ian Blackford, who the group seemed to appreciate for his directness in questioning and not letting the issue of Partygate slide.

“Well, Ian Blackford only had one question, and yet he held the Prime Minister to account once again in a better style and in a better manner that landed and resonated more with the House and more with me as an individual than Keir Starmer.” – David

However, it was in the meat of PMQs that came the most fascinating responses. Having led on Conservative tax rises despite claiming to be a low tax party, the group did not necessarily agree with Starmer’s questioning. Instead, the group tended to empathise more with the government, appreciating that tax rises may be necessary in order to pay back the cost of things such as furlough and business support, which the government were roundly praised for.

“The Conservatives shelled money out left, right and centre, trying to look after people. Now there’s a huge debt and somebody’s got to raise taxes. So when Labour say ‘why are you raising taxes?’ it’s because we’ve got a massive debt.” – David

The difficult decisions ahead for the government, including things such as the National Insurance rise, may not be the vote-loser some backbench Conservatives think it is, based on the evidence of this group, providing that the government can continue to hammer home its pandemic record.

“But somebody’s got to pay for all this PPE, somebody’s got to pay for the furlough and everything. How does Labour expect that to be paid for?” – Yvonne

Where does this leave Starmer and Labour, then?

Ultimately, it’s at a bit of a crossroads. This group of swing voters appreciate elements of Starmer’s style, but acknowledge he does not have the authoritativeness that the Prime Minister possesses. Discussing tax rises is fine, but perhaps isn’t enough and, against the backdrop of a pandemic, swing voters may have sympathy for the reasons the government needs to take such ‘difficult decisions’ a la 2010. But Partygate rumbles on, and some swing voters just will not entertain the idea of voting for Boris Johnson again.

“There was no blueprint for how to handle the pandemic. We just had to get through it, and I don’t think that Labour would have been any better. I am reluctant to change from a lifetime of voting Conservative a lifetime, and being a strident supporter of the Conservative Party. Some of its path prime ministers and the things that I feel that it’s done for the good about this country. But I cannot condone the behaviour of this Prime Minister. I will not vote Conservative again if Boris is the Prime Minister.” – Caroline

Starmer does have an opportunity, then. For many, although not all, of this group, a change of leader for the Conservatives would almost certainly win their vote back so, in a sense, Starmer has to win them over now while this Prime Minister is still in charge. However in a head-to-head battle with Boris, Starmer struggles to edge ahead and, given how ropey this Prime Minister’s premiership has looked over recent weeks, one would expect an opposition leader to be more convincing among a group of swing voters than he appears to be.