The coming fight between “Get Brexit Done” and “Don’t Trust Boris”

Before we delve into the more complex features of the coming election campaign, let’s start with a simple proposition. The central question on election night will be: have the Conservatives won enough seats to deliver Brexit?

“Enough” is around 320. Assuming Sinn Fein a) have seven seats again in the 650-member Parliament, and b) don’t take their seats, there will be 643 voting MPs. 322 will be needed for an overall majority. With the DUP now firmly against Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, and a number of pro-Brexit Labour (and ex-Labour) MPs not standing this time, the Tories will need to come very close to an overall majority to achieve their version of Brexit.

Two years ago, the Tories won 318 seats. So, as a rule of thumb, if the Tories make net gains on election night, they will probably be fine; net losses will condemn them to opposition. (If the net change is no more than two or three either way, all bets are off.)

Predicting the outcome is even harder than usual. The opinion polls, still smarting from their errors in the last two general elections, disagree on the size of today’s Conservative lead; so none of us can be sure how the parties stand as the campaign starts. Moreover, the electorate is more volatile than ever. The strong, class-based, loyalties of half a century ago have largely vanished. Voters shop around as never before. Even if we knew exactly how much support each party has today, we could not be sure what the numbers will be at the end of the campaign.

Still, we must do the best we can with the data we have. As things stand, and before the campaign gets going, the Conservatives risk losing 20-30 seats: 10-12 to the SNP in Scotland, a similar number to the Liberal Democrats in England, and – though this is less certain – a few Remain-voting London marginals to Labour. To win outright, the Tories need to offset these by gaining enough Leave-voting Labour seats, mainly in the Midlands and North.

Add in the electorate’s volatility, and it is possible that the Conservatives will win comfortably – or fall well short of their target. If they do lose seats they could still end up well ahead of Labour. If so, we may have to wait days, or even weeks, before we know who will end up as Prime Minister. Such post-election uncertainty is common in countries such as Germany, Italy, Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands; but the last time Britons had an extended post-election hiatus happens to be the last time we had a December election.

In 1923, Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives hoped for a clear majority, but they lost seats, ending up with 259 MPs. Labour, with 191, came second. Five weeks later, Baldwin lost the vote in Parliament on the King’s Speech, and Ramsay MacDonald became Labour’s first, albeit short-lived, Prime Minister. Will we come to quote the dictum, rightly or wrongly attributed to Mark Twain, that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”?

Four factors will determine whether the Tories will reach their target.

  1. Johnson’s public popularity. We can probably assume that we will be a far more effective campaigner than Theresa May two years ago. However, he is the first Prime Minister in eight decades of polling to have a negative rating after just three months in the job, with more people unhappy than happy with his leadership. After such episodes as prorogation (deemed illegal by the Supreme Court) and multiple “do or die” commitments to deliver Brexit by October 31, he is vulnerable to the charge that “You can’t trust Johnson”, especially if…
  • Nigel Farage decides to attack the Prime Minister for a deal with Brussels that fails to deliver “real” Brexit. Then Johnson will be accused of being dodgy by all his opponents, whether pro- or ant-Brexit. If the Brexit Party manages to hold on to around 10% of the national vote, this will make it harder for the Conservatives to win outright. Johnson needs the Brexit Party to back off – or he must coax its supporters into returning to the Tories.
  • Tactical voting. In 1997, the year of Tony Blair’s first landslide, the Tories were heading for a big defeat. But tactical voting added to their losses. Enough voters lined up behind the best-placed anti-Conservative candidate, Labour or Lib Dem, regardless of their own personal preference, to cost the Tories 30 seats that they might otherwise have retained. Tactical voting on the same scale this time might make enough difference to stop Brexit.
  • But tactical voting on this scale is far from certain. In 1997 many Lib Dems were happy to vote for a centrist party led by Blair, one of the most popular party leaders in polling history: will they be equally willing to vote for a party led by Jeremy Corbyn, by some margin the least popular? The case for answering “yes” is that a) Labour has a number of popular anti-austerity policies that it will promote in the coming campaign; and b) today’s Tory party is more right wing – and therefore more objectionable to progressives – than the party of the 1990s, whose leading lights were John Major, Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke.

On the other hand, if Lib Dem supporters refuse to switch in Labour-Conservative marginals, the Tories could win comfortably – just as Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives gained 58 seats in 1983, despite losing votes, when the anti-Tory vote around Britain was evenly split between Labour and the Liberal-SDP Alliance.

Which of these factors will matter, and by how much? Ask me again on December 13, and I’ll tell you. Meanwhile, strip away the statistics and the detailed tactics, and the coming campaign will, at its core, be a contest between two narratives: “Get Brexit done” versus “don’t trust Johnson”. If the first dominates the campaign, we shall have a Conservative government that delivers Brexit; if the second proves to be more persuasive, we won’t.

This blog first appeared on Prospect’s website