Why an early election carries big risks for both Johnson and Corbyn

Boris Johnson may wish to rethink his plan to hold an early general election. The latest YouGov survey suggests that he risks being ejected from Downing Street. True, the Conservatives enjoy a seven per cent lead over Labour. This would normally be enough to secure re-election. However, the “Boris bounce” is fading. Two weeks ago the Tories had 35 per cent support, 14 points ahead of Labour. The party’s share is now down to 30 per cent, and its lead has halved to seven per cent.

Were this to be the result of the next general election, and on conventional assumptions of a uniform swing (but allowing for the very different pattern of voting in Scotland) the new House of Commons would leave the Tories well short of a majority – even with the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party:

Conservative                     304 seat (down 14 since 2017)

Labour                                  224 (down 38)

SNP                                        50 (up 15)

Liberal Democrat             49 (up 37)

Others                                  23 (no change)

The actual results of the next election, whenever it is held, could be very different. It is possible that the Conservatives could gain ground, especially if they win back votes from the Brexit Party. But even if that does happen, there are three reasons why an early election would be a huge gamble for the Prime Minister. The first flows from the events of the past two years; the other two emerge from YouGov’s new poll.

  • Voters in the 2017 election were far more volatile than in any previous election. The Conservatives started the campaign more than 20 points ahead of Labour, and looked set for a landslide victory. Theresa May ended up with a lead of less than three per cent, and losing her majority in Parliament.

While a new election is unlikely to follow the same trajectory –Johnson is a far better campaigner than May – surveys in recent months suggest that the underlying volatility in public attitudes has continued. Conservative support this year has ranged from 17 to 41 per cent, Labour from 18 to 35 per cent. Voters have been shopping around as never before; loyalties have never been weaker.

  • The latest YouGov survey confirms that millions of voters could switch parties between now and the election, whenever it is held. Of the ten million voters who currently plan to vote Tory (assuming a turnout similar to last time), more than two million say they have yet to decide finally how they will vote. There are similar levels of fragility in Labour and Liberal Democrat support; but most of their potential vote-changers say they would “definitely NOT” vote Conservative. These figures do not prove that Johnson is bound to fall short of an outright majority; they do suggest that victory is emphatically not in the bag.
  • Tactical voting could damage Johnson’s prospects fatally. In the seat projection above, the Conservatives would capture 21 seats that Labour won narrowly two years ago. Tactical voting could mean that instead, Labour makes net gains from the Tories. Liberal Democrat and Green voters were asked how they would vote “if you though that the only parties with a realistic chance of winning in your constituency were the Conservatives or Labour”? Almost a half of current Liberal Democrats, and more than a half of all Greens, say they would switch their vote – in both cases preferring Labour over the Tories by around four to one.

It’s a similar story in Conservative-Liberal Democrat contest. Half of Labour supporters, and a similar share of Green supporters say they would switch to the Lib Dems, with hardly any voting Conservative.

These figures suggest that tactical voting on this scale could cost the Conservatives up to 60 seats, compared with a uniform-swing projection. Labour would be the beneficiaries in around 50 and the Lib Dems up to ten.

It should be stressed that this is a calculation derived from YouGov’s data, not a firm prediction. Certainty on this, as on everything else about party prospects at the next election, is unavailable. If either Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn claim confidence about the outcome of the campaign, they are fooling themselves, or us, or both.