Both Labour and Tory strategists expect Boris Johnson to get a “vaccine bounce” in the polls ahead of May’s elections, HuffPost UK can reveal.
With the current NHS programme on course to inoculate the over-70s by mid-February, and all over-50s by the spring, senior figures close to Keir Starmer believe that the success of the project will boost the prime minister in coming weeks.
Senior Conservatives also expect an uplift in Johnson’s popularity due to the success of the vaccine programme, particularly as it looks likely to open the way to a gradual easing of lockdown restrictions in the spring.
But while Tories believe the PM’s personal bounce will take time to filter through to the party’s ratings, Labour is braced for the first impact to be shown in this May’s elections.
As voters prepare to go to the polls in local and mayoral elections in England, as well as elections for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the big two main parties are gearing up to manage expectations among activists and the public.
The usual spin battle by parties to play down their chances has taken on even bigger significance as the UK faces its biggest single set of elections on one day for years, thanks to the pandemic postponing many contests from last year and rolling them in with other elections.
Following downbeat projections by internal polling his party, Starmer is preparing for a mixed set of results in the local and mayoral elections in England, as well as elections for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments.
Private MRP surveys, conducted for Labour by a leading pollster, currently point to the Tories winning the Tees Valley metro mayoralty by a big margin on the first round of voting.
It also shows that in the West Midlands metro mayoralty, which Labour has seen as one of its key targets, the Tories are two points up on their 2017 victory.
In the West of England mayoral race, another target, Labour’s vote is up but still short of victory. In the new Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayoralty, the party is also behind the Tories.
A recent presentation to the shadow cabinet by Starmer’s chief of staff Morgan McSweeney revealed internal polling showed Labour had so far managed to get just 4% of “switchers” from the Tories since the 2019 general election defeat under Jeremy Corbyn.
One slide showed that Labour’s rise in the polls over the past year has come largely from taking big chunks of Liberal Democrat and Green support, whereas the Tories had gained markedly from former Brexit Party voters.
Some in Labour suspect the PM gave the go-ahead for the May elections precisely because delaying until the autumn risked the good news on the vaccine being drowned out by a spike in the jobless figures when furlough schemes end this summer.
“We expect the Tories to get some kind of vaccine bounce,” a senior Labour figure said. “By May, they will probably have vaccinated certainly the most vulnerable people. They’re talking about restrictions opening up in the next couple of months, and that’s on top of the incumbency benefit that governments across the world have had in the last year.”
With the grim milestone of more than 100,000 deaths from Covid due to be passed this week, as well as problems with schools disruption, test and trace and economic uncertainty, some Tories had feared that the local elections would be a “referendum on Covid in the UK”. But the success of the vaccine rollout so far appears to have changed some of the calculations.
Tory peer and pollster Lord Hayward told HuffPost UK: “If the vaccination programme continues as is, there is no doubt in my mind that the Conservatives will get a bounce from where they are at the moment.
“But the opinion polls don’t move very quickly. What they do tend to do is show how people think the leader of the party is doing. I think you will begin to see a shift, which is a vaccine bounce on Boris’s ratings, not the party’s ratings. That takes longer.”
Starmer has managed to steadily slash the Tory lead from the 20-points seen under Corbyn last April to virtual level pegging by November. But the Tories have nudged ahead again in recent weeks.
“One of the reasons the Tory party is holding up so well is because lots of people in the country are very invested in the government doing well on the pandemic. Generally people are giving them the benefit of the doubt. Whether that lasts to the next election is different,” said a Labour insider.
“Labour is not associated with issues that people really care about. The Conservatives are much more associated with things that people care about, like the economy for example. Basically people are not hostile, but they are certainly not ready to jump over to us yet.”
Last April, when Labour was still 20 points behind the Tories, the party’s internal polling pointed to a loss of 300 council seats and the possible loss of control of town halls in Plymouth, Amber Valley, Harlow and even Sheffield.
With the parties now more level nationally, the backdrop is different but senior Labour figures report that they still expect to lose seats in places like Sheffield, Bolsover, Sunderland, West Bromwich.
Internally, the party dismisses two polls recently that suggested Starmer could win back the vast majority of the so-called red wall seats that fell to Johnson in the 2019 election in the north and midlands. Its own polling is failing to show similar optimism.
“There are places where the Tories have made big inroads in the last two or three years but we haven’t had the local election cycle in that time. If we can kind of stem the bleeding of big losses, basically, that would be a result for us,” one said.
“We basically started from a place of when Keir and Angela took over that we were going to lose a lot of seats, a lot of councillors. And what we need to show is that we have effectively started to turn that situation around.
“It’s going to be bad in Scotland. It’s going to be very good for the SNP. I strongly suspect we will finish third there and lose seats. In Wales, we have a Tory problem in the north and in south and the Valleys we have a huge problem with Plaid, particularly if they do very well in local elections. In the Senedd, we are defending a number of really small majorities to both the Tories and to Plaid.”
Labour insiders also complain that the party is desperately short of cash for campaigning, partly because of legal payouts it has had to make over a leaked report on anti-Semitism.
With the pandemic banning door-to-door campaigning, its usual advantage in having a mass membership is countered by being significantly outspent by the Tories, they claim.
However, the Tories counter that Labour should be romping home in many areas at this point in the electoral cycle.
Several areas are holding elections four years on from the Tories’ stunning performance in the 2017 local elections, just weeks before Theresa May’s vote collapse in the general election.
In 2017, independent polling experts Rallings and Thrasher highlighted that was the third year running that the official opposition had made net losses of council seats, when they traditionally almost always gain them.
Hayward said that there was a “strikingly large” number of voters, around 35%, who still don’t have a view either way about Starmer and who Labour will hope to convert by the time of the 2024 election.
But he said that it would not take much for Labour to win back several of their ‘Red Wall’ seats.
“Boris and others have talked about ‘these people lent me their votes’. In fact, in a very large number of places, the stunning victories had nothing to do with many extra Conservative votes. What they actually had everything to do with was a massive decline in Labour support. They went off to the Brexit Party, the Lib Dems, Greens, even independents.
“In Rother Valley, the Labour party vote went down by eight over 8,000 yet the Conservative vote went up by just over 2,000. In Blyth Valley, the Conservative vote went up by 1,600, the Labour vote went down 7040. The Labour party don’t need to do much to win then back.
“And given that the opinion polls have showed a 10% shift in their favour since 2019, for them to start saying ‘oh we’re not going to win many seats, there’s the Red Wall’, really is serious management expectation.”
Hayward added: “What is staggering is that at a point when the Conservatives are in government and have been in government for a decade, the Labour Party can seriously say that they are actually expecting not to do well.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.