Britain in numbers

No, the Tories are not making a dramatic comeback

A new survey by Deltapoll showing the Labour lead has been halved is not a sign of a fundamental shift – yet.

By Ben Walker

Are the Conservatives resurgent? One poll thinks so. Deltapoll, founded by the industry veterans Martin Boon and Joe Twyman, has a new poll out (19 March) showing the Labour lead over the Conservatives cut, in a single week, from 23 percentage points (12 March) to just ten. Conservative support is up by eight points, Labour down five.

You don’t need to be a polling expert to know this is a big shift, even though in its 12 March poll Deltapoll had the Conservative share down by four points and two weeks before (25 February) it had them up three points.

That said, a bounce this big is worth a comment or two. Something might be happening, but only might, because other polls taken at the exact same time as Deltapoll's suggest otherwise. My Britain Elects poll tracker has the Labour lead down only to 19 points (or 18.5 points, to be exact).

[See also: Was Gary Lineker speaking for Britain?]

It’s clear from the chart above that we have seen some change over the past few weeks. There's a simple factor to explain this: immigration. The Ipsos Issues Index shows it now sits eight points higher up the agenda of public anxiety than where it was in February. Polling by JL Partners found that going hard on the issue of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats managed to boost Rishi Sunak's own favourable ratings in Tory marginals and reduce Labour's lead on which party would best handle immigration. It's inevitable that promoting a policy on this issue that most voters would agree with would rally a few back to the Tory fold, even though fundamentally it isn't as big a concern as the economy or cost of living.

[See also: Britain Predicts]

The benefits of emphasising immigration should be limited because, as I’ve written before, this isn’t 2013. This isn’t the rise of Ukip. What Deltapoll shows is that Tory noise on a typically Tory issue can rally the Tory base. I'm not sure, however, that it's happening to the extent Deltapoll suggests.

Besides, Deltapoll has form for more variable surveys than the average. And while that isn't to say their methodology is necessarily worse than others (in fact, I regard them as much better run than some of the new kids on the block), I do expect to see a quite substantial reverse swing next week.

Put the latest polls together on one page and you'll note that the primary point of disagreement with all the pollsters is the share of support for the Conservatives. Deltapoll has it at 35 per cent, Opinium at 29 per cent, Redfield and Wilton at 26 per cent, and People Polling at 20 per cent – a min-max difference of 15 points. The Labour share, meanwhile, is at 45, 44, 47 and 45 per cent respectively, a difference of only three.

When it comes to the Labour lead you need to know two things. First, for the past year around 30 per cent of the Tory base (those who backed Boris Johnson in 2019) have been saying they plan on staying home at the next election (due to apathy, indifference about who wins, etc). Second, around 10 per cent of that base are also saying they would switch to Labour (in isolation, that's four points shaved off the Tory column, and four points being added to Labour's). It's these two factors that have proven essential to Labour's big leads these in the polls past few months. Point two is significant, and is generally hard to reverse, whereas point one – mid-term apathy – is inevitable, and there is evidence those voters may rally come election day. Some pollsters have sought to account for that in their numbers, reallocating demographically similar "don't knows" to the Tory column. That narrows the Labour lead somewhat, and induces greater variation in the overall poll numbers. 

Still, a 10 point Labour lead cut down from a 23 point one, surveyed by a pollster with more variation than others, is a bit much. A narrowing may be coming. On paper it is possible, with immigration back up the agenda (somewhat). But not to this extent.

[See also: Why “stop the boats” won’t save Rishi Sunak]