The more successful rollout of coronavirus vaccines in Britain compared to the European Union has resulted in a sharp reversal of previous approval trends for national leaders and their handling of the pandemic. Boris Johnson, whose initial handling of the pandemic was sharply criticised both domestically and abroad, is now enjoying a notable increase in approval of his handling of the pandemic, with the British public also indicating they approve of current (if not previous) Government measures to manage the pandemic. Meanwhile in continental Europe, the leaders of Germany, France, and Italy now face a public that is increasingly disapproving of their handling of the crisis. In this article, we present our latest research from Germany, France, Italy, and Great Britain, contrasting it with our findings from early October.
In Germany, our research finds that the proportion of Germans who think the German Government is currently taking the right measures to address the coronavirus pandemic has fallen from 62% in October to 43% in late February. Indeed, our latest polling finds that a plurality of Germans (47%) now think their government is not taking the correct steps to manage the pandemic, representing a sharp reversal in public opinion. Looking into the demographic data, we can observe a clear partisan slant, with 58% of Christian Democratic Union (CDU) voters and 53% of Social Democratic Party (SPD) voters (from the 2017 election) approving of current government measures. Meanwhile, only 26% of Alliance for Germany (AfD) voters approve of the current measures being taken by the German Government.
Meanwhile, the public in France has been sceptical of the French Government’s handling of the pandemic for some time now: back in October, only 32% of French respondents said the French Government was taking the right measures to address the coronavirus pandemic—and this figure has now fallen to 27% in late February. Conversely, a clear majority of the French public (56%) now say that the French Government is currently failing to take the right measures to address the situation. Although these figures do not represent a dramatic reversal as in Germany, it is nonetheless remarkable that only one in four French respondents think the right measures are being taken. Among those who voted for Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 Presidential Election, 52% think the right measures are being taken, but a very significant 35% disagree. Marine Le Pen’s voters are strongly opposed, with only 17% saying the French Government is taking the right steps.
Italy has experienced a similar pattern as Germany, but less dramatic: whereas in October 54% of Italians thought the Italian Government was taking the right measures to address the pandemic, this has now fallen to 41% in late February. Conversely, the proportion who think the Italian Government has failed to take the right measures has increased from 33% to 41% over the past five months. Politically, Italy appears to be somewhat less polarised on this question than both Germany and France: approval for current government measures stands at 56% for Democratic Party voters, but it is still 36% among Lega voters and 44% among Forza Italia voters. Although these figures are far from a majority, they are nonetheless less polarised than the opposition levels among AfD or Marine Le Pen voters.
Unlike the three countries we polled in continental Europe, in Britain we observe a sharp increase in support for the measures currently being taken by the Government: the proportion of British respondents who think the British Government is currently taking the right measures to address the coronavirus pandemic has increased from 33% in October to 56% now in March. Even among those who voted for the Labour Party in 2019, a very significant minority of 40% agree with the Government’s current measures.
When it comes to approval of how the leaders of each country have handled the coronavirus crisis since it started, our research finds that a plurality in Germany (48%) continues to approve of Angela Merkel’s overall handling of the coronavirus crisis, but this latest figure is a significant decline from the 63% who approved in October. On the other hand, the proportion who disapprove of Merkel’s handling has risen steeply from 16% to 33%.
In France, 25% approve of Emmanuel Macron’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, compared to 49% who disapprove. Although Macron’s approval numbers were already dire in October (29% approved and 41% disapprove), the past five months have seen them fall even lower, placing him in a weak position ahead of the next French Presidential Election in April 2022.
The past five months have seen a change of Prime Minister in Italy, with Mario Draghi recently replacing Giuseppe Conte at the helm of the Italian Government on 13 February. Back in October, our research found that 61% of Italians approved and 18% disapproved of Giuseppe Conte’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Now in late February, 42% approve and 17% disapprove of Mario Draghi’s handling of the pandemic. Nonetheless, the key highlight is the percentage that neither approves nor disapproves of Draghi’s handling (33%) or who say they don’t know whether they approve or disapprove (8%). These two percentages are much higher than the equivalent figures for Merkel, Macron, or Johnson, as they reflect the fact that Draghi only became Prime Minister earlier in the month.
Meanwhile in Britain, our research finds a sharp increase in approval of Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, with the proportion who approve increasing from 30% in October to 43% now in March. Despite these optimistic figures for Johnson, support for his handling of the pandemic remains deeply politically polarised, with 77% of 2019 Conservative voters approving, but only 22% of 2019 Labour voters. Nonetheless, even this 22% represents an improvement when compared to the 17% of 2019 Labour voters who approved of Johnson’s handling of the pandemic in October.
The most powerful explanation for the rise in British approval for Johnson in comparison to other European leaders is the success of the British vaccination programme in comparison to the programmes on the continent. Our research finds that 85% of British respondents are satisfied with the British vaccination programme so far, compared to only 23% of German, 25% of French, and 32% of Italian respondents who are satisfied with their countries’ vaccination programmes. The dividend for Johnson’s popularity as a result of the successful vaccination programme is already showing, with approval of his handling of the pandemic having increased by 13% in the past five months. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel has seen German approval of her domestic handling of the crisis fall by 15% since October.
Reflecting the above pattern, our research finds that 41% of the British public is optimistic and 30% is pessimistic about the general direction in which the United Kingdom is heading—a question that encapsulates the general direction of the country’s hopes for its economy and society beyond the coronavirus pandemic. In contrast to the optimism in Britain, pluralities in Germany (35%) and Italy (48%) and a majority in France (52%) are pessimistic about the direction in which their countries are heading. Overall, it appears that the more successful rollout of the coronavirus vaccination in the United Kingdom compared to the European Union has resulted in a bout of optimism among the British public and in pessimism across the major economies of continental Europe.
It might be the case that European countries are able to invigorate their vaccination programmes and regain the approval of their electorates, and it could also happen that Britain’s initially fast vaccine rollout could falter in later stages. However, for the time being, the success of Britain’s vaccination programme appears to be translating into higher levels of popularity for Boris Johnson’s current approach to the crisis, allowing him to rewrite the narrative of his initial handling of the pandemic.