The General Election Diaries: Public feels forced to choose the least awful leader

PRWeek has partnered strategy and insight consultancy BritainThinks to take the temperature of the nation and its response to politicians' attempts to win their votes in the weeks leading up to the general election.

The public feels they face an unenviable choice, writes Deborah Mattinson
The public feels they face an unenviable choice, writes Deborah Mattinson

If the one in five of us who are still undecided continue to ignore the best efforts of the policy wonks, what, if anything, will help us make our minds up as polling day approaches?

As I pointed out earlier in the campaign, it's the leaders who count most. The most popular leader has always gone on to win the popular vote – and the degree of correlation is marked.

Landslide victories tend to be accompanied by impressive poll leads for the leader who would go on to be PM (Margaret Thatcher was ahead by 29 per cent in 1983, Tony Blair by 19 per cent in '97). 

In 2017 Theresa May ended her disastrous campaign four per cent ahead, and that very slight advantage was mirrored in the final outcome.

In 2019 voters face a real challenge: they look at the party leaders and find them wanting.

Trust has become an issue. When asked which attributes are most associated with Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn, both share the same very negative top three: "deceitful", "out of touch", and "dangerous". When asked what voters recall from the campaign, "lies" gets the highest score.

Corbyn is seen as, frankly, unelectable – bumbling, old-fashioned and scruffy (voters envisage his alternative career as an archaeologist: all ill-fitting cords and patched elbows).

He seems naïve, incompetent and unable to manage his own party, let alone the country.

The fictional character he is most like is "Where's Wally" – "a bit useless, and a bit absent", observed one voter.

Views of Johnson are more nuanced. He's often disliked: seen as spoilt and self-serving; but he is also a charismatic entertainer: decisive and energetic.

Asked whether they would trust him to look after their home when they went on holiday, focus-group participants laughed: "No, of course not, he'd have a party and trash it."

The fictional character Johnson resembles most depends on the respondent's Brexit vote. Leavers see him as a slightly dashing 007, poised to rescue the project, but Remainers worry that he is more like Homer Simpson, a chaotic figure in the power room: "Thinking 'what do I press here? What do I do?'"

Poor performances from the two front-runners might have allowed other candidates to break through, but it seems not.

Nigel Farage is all but forgotten: one focus-group member thought he was the Lib Dem leader.

Meanwhile, the actual Lib Dem leader has barely registered either: questions about Jo Swinson meet with blank faces.

Even more humiliating, one recent poll suggested that the more voters saw her, the less they liked her.

The upshot is that "Don’t know" is the winner on a range of crucial leader attributes, including 'Who would be best at representing the UK on the international stage?' or 'having a plan for growth in the economy'.

Among those voters who do know, Johnson continues to enjoy a small but significant lead.

The voting intention polls have closed a little in this past week – and Johnson's advantage over Corbyn has reduced slightly, too.

It remains to be seen whether this trend will continue but, for now, the voters' unhappy task is to decide who is their least-worst option.

Deborah Mattinson is a former pollster for Gordon Brown and the founding partner of BritainThinks

Click here to subscribe to the FREE public sector bulletin to receive dedicated public sector news, features and comment straight to your inbox.

Make sure you register for the site to access more than one story per month.

To submit a news, comment, case study or analysis idea for the public sector bulletin, email

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in