Tory unrest over Boris Johnson's 'government by focus group'

Tory unrest over Boris Johnson's 'government by focus group'

June 21, 2020

Tory unrest over Boris Johnson’s ‘government by focus group’ with polling firms paid millions of pounds to track public views – but allies dismiss ‘bullsh**’ claims the PM is failing to lead the country

  • Boris Johnson facing Tory claims he is overseeing a ‘government by focus group’
  • Analysis shows the government is spending millions of pounds with polling firms
  • Allies of the PM dismissed the idea he is failing to lead the country as ‘bullsh**’ 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Boris Johnson is facing growing unrest on the Tory benches over the government’s obsession with polling.

The PM’s allies have voiced defiance after analysis showed the extent of the spending on tracking public opinion. 

Contracts worth millions of pounds are in place to provide surveys and focus groups on how voters view the government’s handling of coronavirus and other policies.

MPs told the Sunday Times that the reliance on such data meant that Downing Street was reacting rather than giving ‘leadership’. 

But insiders insisted the claim was ‘bull’sh**’ – pointing out that ministers are pushing ahead with unlocking the economy despite strong evidence of ‘coronaphobia’ among the public.

Boris Johnson (left on a visit to a school in Hertfordshire on Friday) and his chief aide Dominic Cummings (right in Downing Street last week) are facing growing unrest on the Tory benches over the government’s obsession with polling

Mr Johnson’s administration is regarded as putting an unprecedented emphasis on tracking public opinion.

The Cabinet Office has long had a contract with YouGov to supply a daily survey asking 40 to 50 questions on British attitudes. 

But sources told the paper that the the two-year £318,700 cost had already been exceeded with a year to run, because so much polling was being ordered.

Hanbury Strategy, set up by Vote Leave communications chief Paul Stephenson and ex-No10 adviser Ameet Gill has been carrying out a separate coronavirus-specific project.

While the two companies provide most of the quantitative data – or ‘quant’ – there is also work on qualitative information – or ‘qual’.

Public First began a year-long £840,000 contract to conduct virtual focus groups at the beginning of March, according to the Sunday Times.

Another focus group specialist, Britain Thinks, founded by Gordon Brown’s pollster Deborah Mattinson, is said to have secured a contract with the Department of Health last year.

The company is expected to start a £2million deal with the Department for Transport shortly, as it struggles to manage disquiet about using public transport and aviation.

Another major pollster, Kantar, reportedly secured a ‘Covid-urgent’ £705,000 contract with the Cabinet Office for ‘social research services’ between April and October. 

Tory MPs complained that Mr Johnson was effectively in charge of ‘government by focus group’. 

Tory MPs complain that the PM is in charge of ‘government by focus group’, amid claims he relies to heavily on polls such as this one by YouGov from earlier this month

A senior Tory backbencher said: ‘Leadership is about leading. The clue is in the name… 

‘We’ve taken an age to get shops and pubs open. At the moment we are seeing neither leadership or competence.’

But the criticism was rejected by allies of the PM. One pollster told the Times:  ‘All governments do polling, there is just more of it.

‘There is a word for government by focus group: it’s ”government”.’

A senior figure added: ‘The idea that we are not making decisions unless a poll says we can is bull****. 

‘The best evidence for that is that we are opening up and the polling evidence is that the public does not really want to.’  

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