The DUP already knows that it is not in a good place politically, but the results of our poll will send a shiver down the spine of its top brass. Even more significantly, they will seriously unsettle MLAs.
With their party down to 19%, and Jim Allister’s TUV on an unprecedented 10%, they will realise that, if something doesn’t change fairly rapidly, many of them could lose their seats.
Sources have been telling this journalist for two months that Arlene Foster’s time at the helm is running out. No moves have materialised against her so far — although behind-the-scenes plotting continues — but this poll will intensify the pressure on her leadership.
To oust her over the Irish Sea border would be unfair on so many levels. The DUP’s disastrous Brexit strategy wasn’t just her making. Indeed, members of its Westminster team were far more intricately involved in the negotiations than she was.
Foster is fast becoming the scapegoat for their collective failings and bad choices. There is no evidence that anyone of substance in the party’s ranks — at Stormont or in Parliament — ever voiced serious concern about its Brexit strategy.
Even without the Irish Sea border problems, Foster was in trouble. Unionist grassroots remain furious at Michelle O’Neill over the Bobby Storey funeral, and the DUP leader is paying the price for not taking a harder line with Sinn Fein.
Yet it is hard to see what she could have done differently during a pandemic. Walking out of government wasn’t a realistic option.
To survive, Foster needs rapid changes to the Northern Ireland protocol, or the existing problems ironed out and the DUP base to settle down. One thing is certain: key figures in the party will take whatever action is necessary to avoid the LucidTalk poll results becoming reality in next May’s Stormont election.
They will not even begin to countenance a 19% vote. It is over two decades since the DUP vote was that low. The party secured 18% in the 1998 Assembly poll but, in every subsequent election to Stormont, it has been significantly above that.
Foster’s party is fortunate that its main rival isn’t competitive. The Ulster Unionists are hardly brimming with talent, and there are no signs of serious rebuilding. They will be lucky to hold onto their existing seats.
Robin Swann’s spectacular popularity — 75% of people think he is doing a good or great job as Health Minister — has not translated into increased support for his party. Although the UUP may be in an even sorrier state if he wasn’t so high-profile at Stormont.
Jim Allister has long been the most capable unionist politician in Northern Ireland. Even his fiercest critics acknowledge his intellect and ability. But he has never managed to successfully build a party.
If he were able to contest every constituency himself, the TUV would be a force to be reckoned with at the next election. As things stand, he needs to present an array of credible candidates. Even if he does, they won’t have anything like the DUP’s professional machine behind them.
Allister is also severely disadvantaged by the fact that the leader of the largest party becomes First Minister.
Unionist grassroots may be angry and disillusioned with the DUP now but, in 15 months’ time, that party will so successfully whip up fears of Michelle O’Neill landing the top job, that many voters will reluctantly rally around it.
Foster’s personal ratings have fallen with voters across the community since our last poll three months ago. LucidTalk gives the leaders a score calculated by subtracting the number of those who view them negatively from those who view them positively.
In October, Foster was on -2; she is now on -30. Last time, under half of nationalists said her performance was poor as First Minister; this time it is two-thirds. Her negative rating has also risen 14% points with Alliance and Green voters.
That is surely down to the DUP vetoing health advice at the Executive, and the antics of some of its leading figures regarding Covid over the past three months.
Michelle O’Neill’s rating has gone from -39 to -33. That slight improvement is likely down to both anger at the DUP, and her party supporting Robin Swann on coronavirus restrictions.
But it is hardly a score which suggests confidence in the Sinn Fein vice-president.
She won’t be too concerned about what unionists think of her, but she will need to start winning over the 53% of Alliance and Green voters who judge her performance as bad or awful, if she is to help her party secure vital transfers in the next election.
Alliance is up from 16% in our last poll to 18%, and Naomi Long will be hoping to convert this to Assembly seats.
The party has no shortage of talent — such as Eoin Tennyson in Upper Bann and Sorcha Eastwood in Lagan Valley — who would hugely help strengthen its hand in Stormont.
The SDLP could be forgiven for being disappointed in its poll results. Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna have put in some very polished performances in the Commons. In the Assembly, the party punches far beyond its weight with Daniel McCrossan and Matt O’Toole particularly impressive.
The SDLP should be polling better than 13% in the circumstances. Why is it not doing so? Would it be better leaving the Executive once Covid is more under grips, or would that be irresponsible with the economy and health service facing massive pressures? These are issues the leadership will surely be debating.
But the person who should be facing the biggest questions from our poll, will likely escape without having to answer any because nobody here has the power to hold him to account.
Three-quarters of voters branded the Secretary of State’s performance poor or awful, while only an embarrassing 4% thought Brandon Lewis was doing a good or great job.
He is certainly no Julian Smith. Indeed, there are times he is so bad that one almost fondly reminisces about Karen Bradley.