LONDON (Reuters) – Boris Johnson, frontrunner to replace Prime Minister Theresa May, cannot win a general election without broadening his appeal to floating voters who instinctively distrust him, Conservative polling specialist Robert Hayward said on Wednesday.
Johnson, 54, a former London mayor and foreign minister, has been rallying support for his leadership bid among Conservative lawmakers and the wider party by saying he is the only candidate who can deliver Brexit and win a national election.
But Hayward, a Conservative member of parliament’s upper chamber, told reporters that while the first part of his message – that he can deliver Britain’s delayed departure from the European Union – is scoring well with voters, his lack of appeal among so-called middle England could lose him any election.
Referring to recent polls by Deltapoll, Opinium and YouGov, Hayward said: “They basically show that a Tory (Conservative) PM or leader can’t win without Brexiteers’ votes … but you can’t win without this middle ground.”
“It’s all very well saying you’ll get the Brexit vote but you need others. Therefore I half agree with Boris but he has to complete the sentence, which is that you can’t do without the middle ground as well,” he said, describing him as “classic Marmite” – a spread that people mostly either love or hate.
More than 10 would-be successors have entered the race to replace May, who announced she was stepping down after failing to deliver Brexit on time. The governing Conservative Party says the contest will be finished by the end of July.
Hayward said Johnson had to win over so-called floating voters, people who do not have strong opinions on either Brexit or remaining in the EU but do want good government, and that many of them were instinctively distrustful of the former mayor.
Foreign minister Jeremy Hunt, among the favorites to replace May, scored the highest among these voters, he said.
Asked whether Johnson could win over middle England, Hayward said: “He has a lot of work to do.”
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; editing by Stephen Addison)