Westminster Twitter got a bit excited this afternoon, after this week’s Economist cover attacked Theresa May over what it views as indecision:
Theresa May's problems are stacking up, and she doesn't seem to have a plan. Our Britain cover this week: pic.twitter.com/JdXV45zktV
— The Economist (@TheEconomist) January 5, 2017
Of course, the Economist’s readers aren’t exactly typical of Britain’s electorate, but it may be the case that, as the BBC’s James Landale expects, this “spark a flurry of features about whether this marks the end of the honeymoon (again)”. You might consider this piece as one of those, but unlike most of the others, I’m actually going to look at the data.
As I explained in my new year chartstorm, the increase in support for the Conservatives (relative to their main opponents) since May took over as leader has been solid, but at first glance not spectacular:
There’s a catch, though. Parties tend to change their leaders after something going wrong, and usually that means an opposition after losing an election. The new opposition leader then tends to get an extended bounce as their party recovers from an election-losing base and the government they’re facing starts to encounter the mid term blues.
When David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister after the EU referendum, the Conservatives were still polling quite well considering that it was a year into the term. If we compare Theresa May’s +9.4 gain (relative to the Tory popular vote margin before she took over) only to John Major’s -0.6 and Gordon Brown’s -9.4 at the stage equivalent to December 2016, it looks considerably more impressive:
(Incidentally, if anyone wants to see the extra-messy version of this chart with every PM and opposition leader since 1979 shown separately, it’s here.)
For changes of Prime Minister in mid-term, the honeymoon has tended to be two or three months. So whatever happens in terms of Brexit or domestic policy, it seems that the increased Conservative lead in recent months isn’t simply a “new leader” bounce, but something more fundamental.
What I suspect is actually going on is that it’s partly a reversion from the dip the Tories had between the budget and the referendum and partly down to continued opposition weakness. So really, the question contains a questionable assumption – in reality what we’ve been seeing is probably more than just a new leader honeymoon.