Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee; for academics and the public alike these two men are the stand-out leaders of the 20 th century. And in my lifetime, it was one of the most impactful – and latterly controversial – prime ministers of modern times, Tony Blair, who captured the public imagination like no other. He enjoyed the highest net approval ratings of any modern leader and won the biggest post-war electoral landslide in 1997 when he swept into No. 10 with a 179 – seat majority.
Boris Johnson’s team, and many in his party, have long fancied their man as the one who – like Mr Blair for Labor – could appeal to parts of the electorate that other Conservatives can’t reach. He enjoyed a spike in ratings going into this election, although his approval ratings have slipped back into negative territory since.
The least worst option out of a bad bunch is how some voters have put it to me in the past couple of weeks. After traversing the country from Hartlepool to Dudley to Coventry to Bedford, one message has landed loud and clear: The public doesn’t much like Mr Johnson or Mr Corbyn. We are in a curious unpopularity contest in which the two main leaders are vying to be the least repellent rather than the most magnetic.
And this isn’t just because of the rancour around Brexit, it is also because of the characters and personal shortcomings of both men.
Mr Corbyn has proved himself to be the most unpopular leader since approval rating polling began in 1977. He is more unpopular than even Michael Foot. When I have asked him in press conferences whether he is the block of Labor’s path to power, he tells me that this election is not about him but about the wider Labor movement. But in reality the public rather like his policies and don’t like him.
Talking to a focus group of undecided voters in one of the 50 most marginal constituencies this week, the resounding message was that Labor without Mr Corbyn is a much more attractive proposition.
One life -long Labor supporter who voted to leave in the 2016 referendum , said he was “outdated” and couldn’t lead teams. “I’m conflicted,” she said.
The divisions in the party have cut through – “he isn’t carrying the other parts of the party with him” – as has Labor’s problems with antisemitism . The voters found him to be a poor leader who couldn’t unite his party but who was the most principled of all the leaders.
And what of Mr Johnson and the Conservatives? He is undoubtedly more popular than Mr Corbyn and his team hope the combination of Mr Johnson the man and his ‘Get Brexit Done’ message will encourage Leave voters to hold their nose and vote Conservative.
We are in a curious unpopularity contest in which the two main leaders are vying to be the least repellent rather than the most magnetic.
But only last month, three in four voters said they were dissatisfied with how the government was running the country, according to Ipsos Mori. The net rating was – 55. There is a deep sense of mistrust in either party’s competence to run the country. As Keiran Pedley, research director at Ipsos Mori, put it to me: “You don’t have to look far in the data to find a general sense of pessimism and negativity amongst the general public.”
Among those undecided voters I spoke to this week, Mr Johnson did attract more support from those who had voted Conservative in 2017 – he ticks the ‘strong leader box’ – than Mr Corbyn did from those who had in the past voted Labor.
But the Heineken politician of the London mayoral days is now most definitely Marmite and dislike for him was visceral among some in the group of undecided voters. His personal life was brought up in conversation with one woman raising his “philandering” and “lying”. “He’s on Planet Boris. He’s like Kevlar.”
Another said of Mr Johnson: “Why would we want him as a leader when he can’t tell you how many children he has?” And one thing nearly everyone agreed on in the room was that he was not very competent.
With three and a half weeks to go, the big question remains whether Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor can persuade people to vote for the policies in spite of their leader. And can Boris Johnson hold together the Leave coalition and persuade Labor and Brexit Party voters to swing to him, while hoping the Remain voters split between the Lib Dems and Labor, giving him a narrow pathway to power.
But as one of those undecided voters told me this week, this is a choice between “the lesser of two evils”.
Don’t be surprised if the public decide they’d rather have none of the above and return another hung parliament in hope, perhaps, that in rejecting both leaders they might get another election with a different choice instead.
Sky Views is a series of comment pieces by Sky News editors and correspondents, published every morning.
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