How Rishi pipped Boris to the post: the UK’s most popular politicians in 2021

Chancellor ‘put to the test’ in today’s budget speech

Only one British politician tops Boris Johnson when it comes to public popularity: his chancellor, Rishi Sunak.

According to YouGov’s accumulated rankings for the past three months, the prime minister is the second-most popular political figure in the UK, based on the percentage of people surveyed who have a positive opinion of each contender.

Sunak stood up in the House of Commons to announce the Budget this afternoon “as one of the most popular chancellors of the exchequer in recent memory”, said The Guardian. But this is the day that “could define Rishi Sunak”. The much-trailed Budget and spending review is the “first real test” for his “apparently indestructible popularity” as he seeks to navigate the next stage of recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

For now, he outshines the PM in the court of public opinion.


Rishi Sunak

Leon Neal/Getty Images

Rishi Sunak (36%)

The pandemic has been the “platform that made Rishi Sunak a household name”, said Catherine Neilan, The Telegraph's politics live editor. He has been “front and centre” of the government response to Covid and “what he was doing was having a direct impact on everyone’s lives”. Despite being relatively unknown before becoming chancellor, he has built up “something of a fandom” with the nickname “Dishy Rishi”, she said. But having topped a series of popularity ratings, the chancellor now finds himself in the “exposed position of ‘prime minister in waiting’”, said George Parker in the Financial Times. And while Sunak has “risen so swiftly in politics that he has not had time to make enemies”, all that “will change as jockeying begins for the eventual Johnson succession”, Parker predicted.


Boris Johnson

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Boris Johnson (34%)

The PM may be outranked by his chancellor in the YouGov list, but Johnson still has a healthy popularity rating – and importantly for the Tories, has double the support of opposition leader Keir Starmer, who has fallen from 15th to 45th place in recent months. The Independent’s Andrew Grice argued that “the volatile politics of the Brexit era” has served Johnson well, while the coronavirus “vaccine roll-out, the furlough scheme and the British instinct to rally round the government in a national emergency all insulate him from the criticism he would face in normal times”. All the same, Grice wrote, while “Johnson is lucky that many voters still give him the benefit of the doubt”, this generous attitude “is largely because of Covid”. And as such, “it won’t last”.


Andy Burnham

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Andy Burnham (31%)

“Two hundred miles from Westminster, Labour politician Andy Burnham has been recast as Manchester’s firebrand mayor: a ‘king of the north’, who refuses to kneel before the nation’s southern overlords,” wrote Matthew Whitehouse for The Face. Labour’s former health secretary has seen his popularity rise this year and is frequently asked if he has plans to run for the party leadership. By “channelling his city’s rage” during the pandemic, including taking a defiant stand against local Covid relief funding, Burnham has “reset his reputation”, said Tom Clark, editor of Prospect. Like the SNP, he has shown that rallying resentment against Westminster can be a brilliant electoral strategy. “Whether or not a ticket back to London is the Burnham plan, the way he has handled this crisis might make it more difficult for anyone to rule from the capital,” said Clark.


Ed Balls

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Ed Balls (30%)

Despite losing his seat six years ago, Labour’s Ed Balls is still the fourth-most popular UK politician after becoming something of a television star. “It has been a bizarre trajectory from Whitehall to reality show stalwart,” said Julia Llewellyn Smith, who interviewed the former shadow chancellor for The Times in January. Balls made his debut on Strictly Come Dancing in 2016 and this year won the BBC’s Celebrity Best Home Cook. Llewellyn Smith wrote that “he’s resigned to the fact that posterity will recall not his economic brilliance but his Strictly Gangnam Style salsa, recently voted the fourth-greatest dance in the show’s history”. Confirming that assertion, Balls told her: “If that’s what I’m remembered for then that’s OK. I’ve made people smile.”


Theresa May

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Theresa May (27%)

In July, UK academics rated Theresa May one of the worst prime ministers since the Second World War. Yet her return to the backbenches seems to have boosted her popularity among the public. “Maybot 2.0” is “turning into a latterday Edward Heath” in her “life after political death”, wrote Labour MP Rupa Huq earlier this year. The former PM has regularly spoken out against government policy, including the cut to foreign aid. The “goody two shoes who professed that the naughtiest thing she’d ever done was running through a field of wheat”, has become “a viral mutant strain of Tory”, sticking the knife into the PM and schooling him on what’s what, wrote Huq in The Guardian.


And the others?

Former prime minister Gordon Brown, who has been outspoken on sharing vaccines with poorer countries, sits in sixth place, with an approval rating of 26%. He comes just above former Labour leader Ed Miliband and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, both on 25%. Matt Hancock, who was in fifth place just a few months ago, has fallen to the 78th spot after quitting as health secretary in June for breaching social distancing guidance by kissing a colleague.


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