Opinion pollsters I’ve spoken to this morning are united in saying this row is a less serious problem for Mr Johnson than his opponents think. They offer three broad reasons.
First, people will view this row through the prism of their pre-existing support. Voters who dislike Mr Johnson think he is being cowardly. People who warm to him think it doesn’t matter. “It’s an issue at the margins,” said Ben Page, head of Ipsos MORI. “The people it excites are people who already don’t like him.”
Second, the fact that Mr Johnson is appearing in a BBC head-to-head debate with Mr Corbyn tonight helps neutralise the damage. “Back in the 2017 election campaign, Theresa May refused to debate head-on with Corbyn and that undermined her claim to be a strong leader,” said Marcus Roberts, a former Labour strategist now at YouGov. “Many voters will see Johnson debating Corbyn this evening and wonder what the fuss is about Andrew Neil.”
A third factor that shouldn’t be ignored is that this is a row that helps the Tories. The party is 10 points ahead of Labour in the polls. By filling the airwaves with lots of headlines about what is fundamentally an issue of process, they stop Labour getting on the front foot on issues that really could affect the election, like the state of the National Health Service and public services. In other words, this row suits the Conservatives’ defensive election strategy.