In part two of three, Corporeal looks at Prime Ministerial satisfaction ratings
Prime Ministers are, of course, towering figures in public life. Pillars of UK society that are respected and loved in equal measure and enter government with the goodwill of the nation behind them. Then with fairly predictable regularity they slip from the hearts of the public and in some cases end up getting burnt in effigy.
The most recent result for Theresa May came in mid-December and landed at -22, which is both a large up-tick and a surprisingly good result. It’s a ~10 point jump from where she’d been polling for the three months prior to that, if it turns out to be more than a blip the it slots her into (a distant) third place rankings-wise. If she falls back to the negative thirties she’d still be sitting at a similar level to Thatcher, Major, Brown, and Cameron at similar points of their tenures. Here are some lines and numbers.
Her fall really started in the month before the 2017 election. A month before the election she was +20 (with similar scores in the months before that), a week before she was -7, a month after she was -25 and has been bouncing around that level ever since.
The traditional British maxim is that all political careers end in failure, and there is a certain brutal familiarity to the ratings trends. Most PMs peak very early on with good ratings based on fewer people providing negative responses. Through their first year these negative responses return with predictable (inevitable?) regularity. The main exception to that is one Margaret Thatcher, who has by far the worst scores for the first six months but made it back into positive figures three times later on (end of the Falklands war in ’82, and around the ’83 and ’87 elections). Blair (essentially all of ’01) is the only other Prime Minister to have a sustained positive period after three years in office. So a resurgence is pretty unlikely, on the brighter side for May, PMs have been this unpopular and continued on for many years.
As with the government ratings, I looked for an election time bump and while there is some sign of it (mean gain of 2.5) only half were ultimately positive and there’s a lot of variation going on. May’s performance in 2017 is by far the worst of any recorded here. For an election held on the 8th June her scores were:
March 14th: +13
April 25th: +19
May 17th: +20
June 1st: -7
Giving an overall rating change of -20, with the next worst being John Major in 1992 with a change of -8.
The ‘high’ line is almost entirely Blair (with a single appearance from James Callaghan), and his early popularity is generally a level above everyone else. Theresa May is actually 5 points above the median score but 5 points below the mean and the main reason is Blair pulling the mean up by about 6-10 points. His later ratings drag him down until he still ends up with negative averages across his entire tenure (as does everyone but Callaghan). He was really really popular until he really really wasn’t.
High response rates almost always result in poor ratings, the only real outlier in this case was Margaret Thatcher who managed multiple positive scores with huge respondent rates (around 90 is a normal settling point, above 95 is unusual) including possibly her definitive score of 50% satisfied, 49% dissatisfied in February of 1982. Everyone knew where they stood on the most divisive PM of recent history.
At the other end of the chart low total response rates are usually driven by low negative responses and point to great net scores (like Blair’s 65% satisfied 5% dissatisfied rating of May 1997). Gordon Brown is our standout here in somehow managing to churn out repeated negative ratings. There were 31 results with 87% or less giving an opinion, 25 positive results, and Brown with 6 negative ones. He was disliked at normal levels, but had the least enthusiasm behind him of any Prime Minister here. At no point were more than 44% satisfied with him (the lowest by far). No flash, but not much to smile about either.
These crazy stats that show Theresa May is more popular through the first thirty months of her tenure than Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron.
Theresa May: Worst election campaigner ever.
(Maybe this needs work, I’d click on them though).
A standard here, Callaghan’s patchy results make him hard to measure against (although he seems to hold up well from what we have, and if his first year was even averagely popular then he’d do even better).
I looked at the ratings movement in years outside elections from February to May and it came out with a mean change of -3.5 which would put the relative over-performance in election year scores at around the same level as with government ratings. But it still feels noisy.
Most total response rates settle into the low 90s after about the first year, my suspicion is that early satisfaction ratings are more important than early net ratings but I haven’t (yet) done the work to see how predictive they are since even I have a limited desire for spreadsheeting.
Theresa May is not popular (all this work for such great insights) but compared to her predecessors she’s rating pretty well. I’m sure this will be of great comfort to her in the times ahead.