Will Rishi Sunak reap any political benefit from the UK-EU deal on Northern Ireland? A YouGov poll published this morning (2 March) makes encouraging reading for the Prime Minister. It shows Sunak’s net favourability recovering to almost the level it was at the start of his leadership.
YouGov’s figures show that 34 per cent of Britons now have a favourable opinion of the Prime Minister – up seven percentage points on a few weeks ago – while 55 per cent have an unfavourable one (down six points). This still leaves Sunak in deep negative territory but it’s the shift that’s worth talking about here. The new Brexit deal has had an immediate effect.
Yet though we can say with some confidence that we are now in the early stages of a “Sunak bounce™”, the same YouGov poll puts public approval of him and his party below the equivalent ratings for Starmer and Labour. Starmer is more liked than Sunak and has been since the latter entered Downing Street in October. The last time Starmer was behind a Tory leader on net favourability was before the Owen Paterson and partygate scandals in autumn 2021.
But Tory beggars can’t be Tory choosers. For party strategists, desperate to eke out a positive narrative for the benefit of supporters and journalists, this represents progress (although any shift has yet to be reflected in voting intention). These are still early days.
After the Northern Ireland deal was agreed I wrote that public opinion would, inevitably, swing towards Sunak. If you’re seen to have succeeded at something – regardless of its real-world impact – you will still probably enjoy a boost in the polls.
But as I argued, any gains will be limited. Northern Ireland, for right or wrong, is a sideshow to mainland Britons. And even the wider issue of Brexit doesn’t move voters in the way it did back in 2019: the cost of living is the priority for voters and has been for over a year. But the Northern Ireland deal shows Sunak’s ratings can improve. If an issue of little import to the median Briton can boost his net approval rating by 13 points, one wonders what might happen if this month’s Budget (on 15 March) helps allay economic anxieties. It may be surprising, but Sunak remains the Tory party’s best electoral asset.