The ‘Inevitable’ Honeymoon? A Short History​ of the ‘Prime Ministerial Bounce’

Many expect Boris Johnson to enjoy some form of honeymoon. History shows us that it may rapidly depend on the handling of ‘events’. 

In the age of Brexit and now ‘Boris’ it remains to be seen whether there are any ‘iron laws’  left in British politics. One which will be tested over the next few weeks is whether Boris Johnson will enjoy the ‘honeymoon’ which is said to affect all Prime Ministers, by the simple virtue of their being a change at the top. Historically speaking this assertion is correct for leaders who have changed mid-Premiership.

In 1976, James Callaghan enjoyed an immediate 11% increase in personal approval ratings in comparison to Harold Wilson. It was followed by a 5% increase in Labour’s standing in the polls. Interestingly, Callaghan operated a ‘submarine’ strategy; refusing to give any interviews or partake in any debates during the Labour leadership contest. In a similar fashion to Johnson, Callaghan was forced to operate a Minority Government on day one as Prime Minister and did not reveal a plan to combat oppositional resistance.

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A similar mid-term leader change benefited the Conservatives in 1990. Taking over as PM following the polarising Thatcher decade, Major’s Prime Ministerial ratings shifted from 26% to 49% within the first few weeks. Gallup recorded the shift as a post-war record; whilst the Conservative Party’s ratings increased by 12%. The Government rapidly eroded Labour’s twelve-month poll lead and Major continually outpolled Kinnock as ‘Best Prime Minister’

Gordon Brown is perhaps the most famous case of Prime Ministerial bounce. Brown was the most prepared Prime Minister since Jim Callaghan, but nothing could have prepared him for the immediate crises of his premiership. A failed terror attack in Glasgow was followed by flooding across England. He was then forced to U-turn on a planned holiday to deal with a foot-and-mouth outbreak. Yet his handling of each one led to his highest ever approval rating of 65%, with a Tory 10-point lead reversed to a 7-point Labour lead in just two months.

In the Evening Standard, Tom Bower, who had been a longstanding critic of Brown said he was: “Confounding his critics and defying his own character, Gordon Brown has, in fewer than 100 days, proved to be a vote-winner…The transformation is little less than astonishing. Doubters have been practically suffocated.”

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Theresa May was said to have enjoyed a ‘warm honeymoon’ with more than half the public satisfied with her first month as Prime Minister and she scored a net satisfaction score of +35. She was the beneficiary of a relative period of calm following the post-Brexit referendum while Labour tore themselves apart.

The extent to which it lasts is another issue and is impacted by the old adage of  ‘events, dear boy’.

Callaghan’s approval ratings fell as he was impacted by the IMF crisis and the slow passage of the Scotland and Wales Bill. By March 1977, when he cobbled together the Lib-Lab Pact, the Conservatives had developed a 9pt lead in the opinion polls and stood as favourites to win a possible election.

John Major’s popularity reached its zenith during the Gulf War of 1991 but fell again as the economy entered a recession towards the end of his first period in office. Labour was again ‘neck and neck’ once the election was called.

Gordon Brown was impacted by his own indecision on calling an election. According to Phillip Webster of The Times, Brown almost triggered an election during his coronation speech, with a March 2008 date to be pencilled in. Yet at the last minute, Brown decided against it. By not ruling it in or out in his own mind, the press continued to speculate as to whether he would and his ‘bounce’ opened the door to a ‘snap’ election. It ended in the chaotic spectacle of him ruling it out once Labour had retracted in the polls. In a momentum-changing PMQs, David Cameron could claim:

‘”You are the first prime minister in history to flunk an election because you thought you could win it.”

 

Theresa May meanwhile enjoyed a sustained poll lead into her decision to call a snap General Election in May 2017. In each case, the public has appeared to give the Prime Minister ‘a chance’ to show what they can do. None, however, have been faced with the immediate problems which Johnson will face on Wednesday. Ironically, George Canning is the Prime Minister with the shortest tenure of service at just 119 days. If Johnson fails to deliver his Brexit plan on 31st Oct (and is forced out) he will be the shortest-serving Prime Minister in history at just 101 days.

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