Pollster compares Boris Johnson’s ratings drop to John Major’s ‘Black Wednesday’ moment

PUBLISHED: 12:30 27 May 2020 | UPDATED: 10:04 28 May 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at a media briefing in Downing Street. Photograph: JULIAN SIMMONDS/Daily Telegraph.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at a media briefing in Downing Street. Photograph: JULIAN SIMMONDS/Daily Telegraph.

PA Wire/PA Images

A polling expert has likened Boris Johnson’s recent ratings drop to how former Tory prime minister John Major won and quickly lost authority and power in the 1990s.

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Prime minister Boris Johnson in the Commons and his senior aide, Dominic Cummings (R); PA imagesPrime minister Boris Johnson in the Commons and his senior aide, Dominic Cummings (R); PA images

Peter Kellner, the former chairman at polling company YouGov, claimed that Johnson is facing his “Black Wednesday” moment - the day the pound crashed out of Europe’s Exchange Rate Mechanism, eroding Major’s authority.

According to Kellner’s piece in The Article, that fateful day took place 23 weeks after the former Tory prime minister unexpectedly won the 1992 election. The controversy surrounding Dominic Cummings, he points out, also broke 23 weeks after Johnson’s landslide victory on last year’s December election.

“Major never recovered from Black Wednesday, even though the economy did, and in style,” he wrote.

“By the time of the 1997 election, living standards were up, and unemployment, inflation, mortgage rates and taxes were all down. No matter: the Tories still lost half their seats and Labour surged to a landslide victory.”

He blamed the defeat on a change of heart from “lifelong Tories” who he says “felt that Major had broken the promise he had made in the 1992 election”.

“Their valence judgement was clear: Major could no longer be trusted. It made no difference that by 1997 most voters had never had it so good. The positional defence of the Tory record cut no ice, for the valence stain of distrust could not be removed,” he added.

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In his latest opinion piece, the pollster lays out the means by which the public perceive British politics. He says that thoughts on policy - for example, on whether the government had enforced a lockdown early enough - is called a positional view.

The other way to interpret political debate is through a valence view, which Kellner describes as a personal judgement on the competency, honesty, and fairness of ministers and the government. An example in point, he says, is whether the public feel they can trust a politician not to operate on double standards.

He claims the Dominic Cummings saga is an example of valence perceptions working against the government.

“The Cummings story has cut through precisely because it is so clear. We need not grapple with the debates about precisely how many people have died, or whether schools are reopening too soon,” he said.

“Instead we have a vivid tale of lies, arrogance, double standards, and feeble excuses from Cummings, and misplaced loyalty from a floundering prime minister who seems to be more concerned to protect a dodgy ally than do the right thing.”

He pointed to polling by YouGov showing the Tories would lose their 80-seat majority if an election were called. He also says a constant stream of surveys show the public think Cummings broke the rules and should resign or be fired.

Kellner questions whether Johnson will face the same fate as one of his predecessors.

He wrote: “Pursuing the right policies to ease the lockdown may no longer be enough. The past few days remind us how quickly a government can crash across the line from a manageable positional problem to an uncontrollable valence crisis. Crossing the line back is a slower, much tougher journey.”

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