Blair Cannot Count On Baghdad Bounce

The British participation in the American-led invasion of Iraq was, at the moment it began, possibly the least popular war with the British public of any in which British troops have joined since opinion polls first began. But no sooner had the first shots been fired than public opinion started to swing in favour of British involvement in the war and kept on going. Within a couple of days the polls were finding solid majorities in favour where previously they had found solid majorities against, a movement which even reports of civilian casualties, "friendly-fire" incidents and later widespread looting and lawlessness apparently did nothing to check. The scale of the change of opinions makes it one of the most dramatic turnarounds that MORI has measured.

The British participation in the American-led invasion of Iraq was, at the moment it began, possibly the least popular war with the British public of any in which British troops have joined since opinion polls first began. But no sooner had the first shots been fired than public opinion started to swing in favour of British involvement in the war and kept on going. Within a couple of days the polls were finding solid majorities in favour where previously they had found solid majorities against, a movement which even reports of civilian casualties, "friendly-fire" incidents and later widespread looting and lawlessness apparently did nothing to check. The scale of the change of opinions makes it one of the most dramatic turnarounds that MORI has measured.

Much of this was predictable. Previous conflicts have shown a consistent pattern that public support increases once military action involving British troops begins, and although the case of Iraq was unusual in that there was such a solid majority against involvement before the war started, this opinion was to some extent equivocal: on 14-16 March, three-quarters of the public told us that they would support British involvement if there were to be proof that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction and if the UN were to vote in favour of action. Some of the opposition was based on the circumstances rather than outright disapproval of the idea of any war, and other polls indicated that most of the public would be happy to see "regime change" in Baghdad, even if they didn't think British troops should be used to achieve it. Nevertheless, and despite the moderate increase in support for the war that the Prime Minister had already achieved through his firm stand in Parliament, just 26% of the public was saying in mid-March that they approved of British involvement without a "smoking gun" and a second UN vote, while 63% disapproved. They got neither smoking gun nor UN vote, yet just a fortnight later, with British troops in Basra and the Americans advancing on Baghdad, 56% now said they approved of British forces taking part in the war and only 38% were against. There had been a swing of 27% - more than a quarter of the public had changed their minds.

It should be emphasised that direct comparison of these two survey questions, though, is a little difficult, since we were forced to change our question wording - the hypothetical questions that before the conflict started were useful for exploring underlying attitudes were not suitable for use once the war was underway. But other polls found similar movements. ICM's poll series for the Guardian, for example, has tracked the same question at regular intervals since last August, and found a persistent majority against the war, reaching a low point of 29% support (and 52% oppose) in February. Support then rose to 38% in the final pre-invasion poll (14-16 March, the same weekend as MORI's) and jumped to 54% just a week later, with the war only a few days old; support has stayed over the 50% mark in each poll since then.

The swing in favour of the war was matched by a swing, but substantially smaller, towards satisfaction with the Prime Minister's handling of the Iraq situation. Even after the invasion, when the majority had swung behind support for the military action, only a bare plurality approved Mr Blair's performance, less than half the public as a whole; nevertheless, his seventeen-point increase in approval in a single fortnight was impressive.

Q Do you approve or disapprove of the way the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is handling the current situation with Iraq?
  Sep 2002 Oct 2002 Jan 2003 28 Feb-2 Mar 2003 14-16 Mar 2003 28-31 Mar 2003
  % % % % % %
Approve 40 35 26 36 30 47
Disapprove 49 47 62 53 54 44
Don't know 11 18 13 12 16 9
Net approve -9 -12 -36 -17 -24 +3
Source: Ipsos MORI

This question, which we asked both in mid-March and at the end of the month, gives us the chance to put the spotlight on those groups that have been most prone to change their minds, gaining some insight into this extraordinary change.

Q Do you approve or disapprove of the way the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is handling the current situation with Iraq?
  14-16 March 28-31 March  
  Approve Disapprove Approve Disapprove Change in "Approve" Change in "Disapprove" Swing
  % % % % % % %
All 30 54 47 44 +17 -10 +13.5
Male 40 47 55 37 +15 -10 +12.5
Female 21 62 38 50 +17 -12 +14.5
16-24 30 56 48 42 +18 -14 +16.0
25-34 24 59 52 39 +28 -20 +24.0
35-44 30 59 47 44 +17 -15 +16.0
45-54 31 52 51 41 +20 -11 +15.5
55+ 34 50 40 47 +6 -3 +4.5
AB 36 51 45 46 +9 -5 +7.0
C1 28 55 46 46 +18 -9 +13.5
C2 33 54 50 41 +17 -13 +15.0
DE 25 57 46 41 +21 -16 +18.5
North 31 55 46 44 +15 -11 +13.0
Midlands 28 55 50 41 +22 -14 +18.0
South 33 53 48 40 +15 -13 +14.0
London 28 54 36 55 +8 +1 +3.5
Conservative 33 57 52 42 +19 -15 +17.0
Labour 46 42 60 32 +14 -10 +12.0
Lib Dems 15 72 26 66 +11 -6 +8.5
Source: Ipsos MORI

Throughout the run-up to the war, the most clear-cut demographic pattern was that women were much more hostile to the war; by the final weekend before the invasion, men were almost twice as likely as women to approve of Mr Blair's handling of the situation. That "gender gap" has been maintained, with very similar swings among men and women (not a statistically significant difference) once the war began. In each case the increase in the number approving was higher than the fall in the number disapproving (the difference, of course, coming from the decisions of the former don't knows).

However, the picture is very different when we look at attitudes by age. Before the war, there was no clear pattern, and most age groups seemed to think in broadly the same way. (In the mid-March poll the 25-34 year olds were somewhat less approving of Mr Blair than other age groups, but this was not a pattern that had been consistently present in earlier polls, and may have been only a statistical blip or the result of some specific short-term cause). But there was a dramatic difference in the way that opinions changed once the invasion had begun. Those aged under 55 swung very sharply in Mr Blair's favour, 15% or more (with the 25-34 year olds falling back into line), and giving the Prime Minister a clear lead in approval among each of the four age groups. In sharp contrast, the 55-and-overs swung only 4.5%; from being the most pro-Blair group pre-war they have become the least pro-Blair, with disapprovers outnumbering approvers by 47% to 40%.

A similar difference is evident in the class breakdown - ABs swung much less than other classes, although the result is the opinions of all classes are now fairly similar, whereas before ABs were substantially more supportive of Mr Blair than the rest of the country. This is perhaps not so surprising: ABs are more interested in politics and more likely to read quality newspapers than other classes, and may consequently be more likely to have already considered the issues in depth and thought through their attitudes before the war started; those who had paid less attention until British troops invaded Iraq would naturally have less entrenched opinions at that point and therefore be the ones most prone to change their minds. A similar explanation may be behind the age differences, though generational factors and memories of previous wars may also have played their part in shaping opinions in that case.

The political aspect is also intriguing. Among Labour supporters, there was a move from an even split of opinion to an almost two-to-one split in their leader's favour; but the swing among Conservatives, less naturally supportive of Mr Blair but perhaps more likely to be receptive to the war policy, was even bigger - half of Tories approved of Mr Blair's handling of the situation. Liberal Democrats, though, were much less likely to waver in their opposition to the war, and remain almost three-to-one against the Prime Minister.

What will be the domestic political consequences of the war, and more particularly of its success? I suspect that it will be comparatively limited, or at least short-lived. It is instructive to compare the improvement in Mr Blair's war ratings with his more general approval ratings. Our March Political Monitor (20-24 March), taken just after the invasion began but well before the outcome was clear, found 43% of the public satisfied with the way Mr Blair was doing his job, a ten-point improvement from the previous month. The April Monitor sees a further slight increase, to 47%. Though clearly an encouraging sign for the Prime Minister, these increases are considerably lower than the swing on the "handling Iraq" question, and the pattern by party support remains a clear one - Labour voters are broadly satisfied with Mr Blair, Tories and Lib Dems are not. Furthermore, 47% satisfied, while a respectable figure, is hardly a stratospheric one; the success of operations in Baghdad has not restored Mr Blair to the popularity and respect that surrounded him after September 11 or the death of the Princess of Wales. Essentially, far from there having been a Baghdad Bounce (misnamed anyway - most of the swing took place before Baghdad fell), matters are simply back to normal: Blair has been unpopular for some months because of his stance on Iraq; that factor no longer applies but he is no better off than he was before the whole business started. (In fact in August 2001, our last poll before the September 11 attacks, 49% were satisfied with Mr Blair's performance and 43% dissatisfied - fractionally better than his present ratings.)

The figures are also a degree lower than those that Mrs Thatcher achieved after the Falklands War (59% satisfied in June 1982); the idea that "Baghdad Bounce" is going to be Mr Blair's Falklands Factor is an overblown one. (In any case, the political effect of the Falklands Factor is usually overstated: both Mrs Thatcher's ratings and the Tories' voting intention rating had begun to climb a couple of months before the Argentinians invaded the Falklands, driven probably by perceived economic improvement; while the enhancement of her image for competent leadership cannot have harmed Tory chances in 1983, it is by no means clear that they would not have won almost as easily even had the Falklands War never occurred.) A further electoral consideration is that while the Falklands War cemented Mrs Thatcher's relationship with her own core supporters, Iraq has had precisely the opposite effect for Mr Blair: the core activists on the party's left are precisely the group most likely to have been ideologically opposed to his decision to back the Americans and join the war. Although Blair may have broadened his electoral appeal in the same way Thatcher did, he has probably also weakened the loyalty of the party members he relies on to knock on doors, address envelopes and deliver leaflets at election times, which she did not. It is doubtful, therefore, whether he can hope for any substantial electoral dividends. (I write before the results of the Scottish, Welsh and local elections are known.)

Certainly the idea that was being tentatively floated in some newspapers, that the Government could exploit Mr Blair's increased popularity to hold and win a quick referendum on the euro, is a non-starter. There has been no move of public opinion in favour of the euro over the past few months (as both our Schroder Salomon Smith Barney series of polls and our recent State of Britain poll for the FT confirm), and the international situation around the Iraq war has surely made more difficult rather than easier the task of selling the idea. More than half the public named France, unprompted, as Britain's least reliable ally, and fewer think that Europe rather than America or the Commonwealth is most important to Britain than at any time since the mid-1980s.

Nevertheless, two side-effects of the war have probably helped the Prime Minister. First, the international situation has distracted attention from the domestic situation and concerns about the state of public services; this is unlikely to last, but it has won him a breathing space. Second, the position has hampered the other party leaders. Charles Kennedy's anti-war stance, though popular with his party's core supporters, may have damaged his fringe support among Tory waverers - all the polls have agreed in finding a slight dip in Lib Dem support over the last few weeks, and satisfaction with his leadership (39% last month, 40% this) are his lowest since the general election. More importantly, Iain Duncan Smith has had more wasted months without a chance to establish himself as a credible opposition leader, unable to attack the Government since he and his party have supported its most important policy. Only 22% are satisfied with Duncan Smith's leadership. Whether this leads to a leadership coup later this year and the inevitable resulting bloodbath (suicidal), or the almost equally damaging spectacle of the party limping on under a lame-duck leader in whom they clearly have no confidence, Blair's re-election by default looks even more inevitable than it did a year ago. Whether history might have been different if IDS had been able to attack the government from day 1 is perhaps unlikely, but circumstances have certainly favoured the Prime Minister.

At any rate, Iraq is no longer the public's top concern. They want the government to improve the state of Britain's health service, schools and public transport. They want the immigration and asylum issue addressed. They want crime reduced. And most of them don't expect the government to achieve any of these. Failure won't cost Blair the next general election, but he won't be forgiven for it even so. However happy the public are with the outcome in Iraq, they will have forgotten it in weeks (unless, of course, it all turns rotten and they want someone to blame - there is nothing fair about public opinion.) Back to the day job, Mr Blair.

More insights about Public Sector

Society