Fighting the last war
All elections have their narratives set by the memory of previous elections. Will this be a repeat of 2017, when a popular Tory Prime Minister with a huge poll lead fought a terrible campaign and was caught up and almost pipped at the post by a written-off Jeremy Corbyn? Or will it be a repeat of 2015, when a Tory Prime Minister starting the campaign without a parliamentary majority beat an unpopular Labour leader by warning of the risk of a minority government propped up by the SNP?
Either of these narratives could yet be repeated in 2019. As in 2015, the Conservatives are already pointing to the imminent possibility of a second referendum on Scottish independence, and the break-up of the union, in return for the SNP backing a Labour minority government. And as in 2017, the Conservatives have a clear lead in the opinion polls, but it is not yet certain that it will survive the rigours of five more weeks of campaigning.
Already, they have succumbed to a series of unforced errors: Jacob Rees-Mogg suggesting that the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster lacked “common sense” for not defying fire brigade advice and leaving the building; the Tory digital team being caught red-handed faking a video to imply, falsely, that Labour’s Keir Starmer had been lost for words in a TV interview; Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns resigning after denying claims that he knew about a former aide who collapsed a rape trial by making claims in court about the victim’s sexual history. And already, Labour have made a confident start, with a series of speeches and policy announcements which dramatise their election message.
But already, enough has happened to demonstrate that comparisons with previous elections can only go so far. The Conservatives have a clearer message than they had two years ago, with an appeal to “Get Brexit done” and move on to voters’ other priorities: reversing police cuts and building hospitals. Labour has had its own serious setbacks, with Deputy Leader Tom Watson announcing his resignation and former MP Ian Austin calling for voters to back the Conservatives on the grounds that Jeremy Corbyn is unfit for office.
All elections are about many things – they are about whatever any given voter thinks they are about – but the Conservatives in particular are attempting to cast this one as a “Brexit election”. There is some truth in this, even if Labour might make an equally compelling case to cast it as an “austerity election”. Boris Johnson’s decision to hold an election now, before the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, means that this really is an election which will decide how, and indeed whether, Brexit happens. This election really could stop Brexit, if Boris Johnson does not win it. And while the Conservatives hope that this will be a powerful motivator for the 52% who voted Leave, it could be an equally powerful motivator for the 48% who backed Remain.
Labour’s (admittedly confusing to some) policy of renegotiating a softer Brexit deal and then putting it to the people in a referendum against Remain makes them just as viable an option as the Lib Dems for voters who want to stop Brexit, with the advantage that they have more prospect of getting into government and are in contention in more seats. If anti-Brexit tactical voting is a significant factor in the election and is conducted on a rational basis, Labour stand to be the biggest beneficiaries. But if Jo Swinson campaigns effectively and outshines Jeremy Corbyn, the anti-Brexit vote could split – which would largely benefit the Conservatives.
Meanwhile, while Conservative messaging is more focused and voter-directed under Johnson than it was under May, it also plays into Labour’s hands to an extent. Both parties now say that austerity is over, but this makes it harder for the Tories to attack Labour for wasteful spending – and where the Tories do want to spend money, Labour can outbid them. Fiscal responsibility and cutting the deficit – the areas of the most significant disadvantage for Labour through most of this decade – have largely vanished from public debate, and look likely to be absent from the election campaign too.
If the election goes according to expectations, the most important battlegrounds will be a swathe of Labour-held, mostly Leave-voting seats in small towns and suburbs across the North East, North West, Yorkshire and the Humber and the East and West Midlands. In 2017 those seats proved more resilient than Theresa May hoped, but most incumbent Labour MPs are not optimistic that they can repeat that defensive effort. Labour is also at risk of losing seats to the SNP in Scotland and perhaps – if the Liberal Democrat surge at this year’s European elections is repeated – to the Liberal Democrats in some urban areas. If the polls are right, this will be the route to a Conservative majority.
A Labour government, though unlikely, is not completely implausible. It relies on Labour holding onto most of its 2017 coalition in its defensive marginals, thanks in part to anti-Brexit tactical voting, while the Liberal Democrats and SNP take Conservative seats elsewhere. The risk for the Tories is that if they fall just a short way from their starting point then it is impossible for them to form a government, even with DUP support – and with no other small parties having any interest in propping them up. Labour would then be well placed to form a minority government, deliver a Brexit referendum and then call another election asking for a clearer mandate.
And then we would all start to wonder if that election was going to be like 2019 all over again.