Conservative voters in Reading West prepare to roll the dice with ‘loose cannon’ Boris Johnson

Keiran Pedley and Charlie Daniels went to the marginal constituency of Reading West to organise a focus group for BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The author(s)

  • Keiran Pedley Public Affairs
  • Charlie Daniels Public Affairs
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As the Conservative Party leadership campaign heats up, Ipsos MORI joined the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme to ask Tory voters in Reading West for their views on the contest.

As we pass the three-year anniversary of the Brexit vote, the Conservative Party is looking for a new leader and a solution to the current political deadlock in Westminster. This week, Ipsos MORI joined the BBC’s Nick Robinson in Reading West to get the perspective of Conservative voters on what the party, and the country, does next. We spoke to a group of 8 respondents, all Conservative voters from 2017, with a mix of those who had backed the Conservatives in the European Elections and those who had backed the Brexit Party, Liberal Democrats or opted not to vote.

Here are five things we learned.

1.     Conservative voters want a strong leader, with charisma, who delivers

Conservative voters in Reading West agreed the next Prime Minister should be ‘strong’, ‘decisive’ and ‘charismatic’. Someone who delivers on their promises, ‘who puts his foot forward, does what he says he’ll do.’ These voters expressed exasperation at the current political situation and the failure of MPs from all sides to deliver Brexit. President Trump was held up as an example of someone who ruffled feathers and delivered, whether you liked him or not, something they thought was sorely lacking in British politics at present.

Nevertheless, Conservative voters in Reading West refused to blame outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May for the current crisis – at least not completely. She was seen to have disappointed, but ultimately done the best she could in difficult circumstances, having been handed a ‘poisoned chalice’ by former Prime Minister David Cameron.

They stabbed [May] in the back, all the other politicians, they didn’t pull together.

2.    These Conservative voters leaned towards preferring Johnson’s ‘energy, ‘passion’ and unpredictability versus ‘more of the same’ with Hunt

When asked for spontaneous reactions to Boris Johnson, Conservative voters gave a mixed response. Johnson was commended for his ‘enthusiasm’, ‘passion’ and ‘confidence’ but some saw him as ‘bumbling’, ‘unpredictable’, and gaffe prone: ‘with Boris you just never know what you’re going to get.’ Yet it was precisely this unpredictability that some thought could unlock the current Brexit impasse. The idea was that when Johnson says he will walk away from negotiations with the EU, they would believe him in a way they would not believe others (like Jeremy Hunt).

The loose cannon of Boris makes you feel that if he makes the threat of walking away, then they’re more likely to believe [him] than Jeremy.

Perceptions of Jeremy Hunt were also mixed. On the one hand, he was seen as professional, sincere, competent and a ‘safe pair of hands.’ His calmness under pressure a real asset, his negotiating skills impressive. Yet spontaneous reactions failed to generate much excitement. Hunt was seen as ‘bland’, ‘boring’, and ‘a bit wet.’ More importantly, he was seen as continuity and ‘more of the same’ in an era where change is on the menu. Comparisons to the rolled-up sleeves, managerial style of former Prime Minister David Cameron were common and not intended as positive. 

Perhaps the best and most telling indicator of the group’s attitudes to the candidates were revealed through a series of rapid-fire questions from moderator Nick Robinson.

  • Who would you rather go for a drink with? Overwhelmingly Johnson.
  • Who would you rather have as your bank manager? Overwhelmingly Hunt.
  • Who would you trust more to drive your children home? Hunt.
  • Who would you rather run the country? Mostly Johnson, with some support for Hunt.

Some in the group recognised that Johnson would be a gamble that might not work, but felt he could be a risk worth taking to break the Brexit deadlock. Hunt was the safe choice, but ‘safe’ had yet to deliver results.  Johnson is a celebrity and exciting, Hunt just another politician. This is not to say that Hunt did not have his supporters. Some found him more trustworthy than Johnson and felt that his negotiating skills might make the EU more likely to listen. Nevertheless, the ‘more of the same’ vibe was hard to shake.

On Hunt:

We’ve had him before. We need someone else

I think Jeremy Hunt’s negotiating skills would be better, which would then make him more believable.

3.    Voters don’t care about Johnson’s private life, but trust is an issue for some

Conservative voters in Reading West were almost unanimous that Johnson’s personal life was irrelevant to whether he could do the job of Prime Minister. The general consensus was that it didn’t matter: ‘he has a right to his privacy as everyone else does.’ Nevertheless, there was criticism of how he had handled the recent row (‘he didn’t answer the question’), and doubts about his character persist. Not just related to his personal life, but other more serious scandals such as the comments he made as Foreign Secretary regarding Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman currently being detained in Iran. There was a sense that Johnson required managing, and evidence of that management was obvious in his leadership campaign.

Police went there, what happened? Nothing. So why are we interested?

I think he’s got too much of a personal life… he’s not trusted, not very trustworthy.

He’s being managed. You’re going to have, essentially, potentially a puppet because he’s being kept away from the press, didn’t appear in the first televised debates, because he couldn’t be trusted.

4.    Conservative voters are not convinced a new Brexit deal is coming – but no-deal is no problem for most

Despite a hope that Johnson’s unpredictability might break the Brexit deadlock, most Conservative voters in this group were resigned to the EU not budging further on the Withdrawal Agreement. A no-deal Brexit outcome appeared to be on the cards.

I don’t think you’ll necessarily get a good deal from the EU. Doesn’t matter who’s in charge, they’ve made their decision, they’ve said they’re not going back.

I don’t think there’s another deal on the table, no.

However, despite some reservations, a no-deal Brexit was not seen as something to fear for most in the group, and those who were nervous were mostly afraid of the unknown rather than anything specific. Britain was seen as a ‘great country’ that could ‘go it alone’ if needed.

On a no-deal Brexit:

It [no deal] is the unknown. We don’t know what’s going to happen. I like what I know.

Not nervous at all. What will be, will be. When we joined the EU, the country was a completely different place than it is now. I think we can stand on our own feet.

Not nervous at all. Great Britain, that’s what we do: trade. We’ll work it out, we’ll talk.

5.    These Conservative voters will stay loyal at the next General Election – for now!

A clear majority of these Conservative voters claimed that they would support the party again at the next General Election – which they hoped was a long way off – whoever emerged as leader and Prime Minister. That being said, there was a sense that this support was at least partially conditional on what the next Prime Minister does in office and, crucially, how they handle Brexit.

I’d have to see what’s happened between now and the election before I’d make a decision, because if [the Conservatives] implode, then there’s no way.

So what did we learn from this group?

It’s important to remember that focus groups cannot tell you what ‘every’ Conservative voter thinks. Nor are they necessarily representative of what Conservative voters think as a whole. However, they do give you an insight into the way people are thinking about the issues discussed.
Perhaps the overall message to take away from this group is that the next Prime Minister needs to take swift and decisive action on Brexit. Even supporters said they were bored of it and many said that the failure to follow through with Brexit so far had made the UK a laughing stock on the global stage.

So send Johnson in to shake things up. Send Hunt in to renegotiate or walk. Above all else, do something. That seems to be the message from Conservative voters in Reading West.

The author(s)

  • Keiran Pedley Public Affairs
  • Charlie Daniels Public Affairs

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