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Trick or treat? Expect plenty of both in the uncertain British election

Polls put Johnson’s Conservatives streets ahead of Corbyn’s Labour (Ipsos MORI this week gave the Tories a 17-point lead).

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Johnson says he will get Brexit done; the Brexit that most of the country is heartily sick of hearing about and desperately wants resolved. He’s an experienced campaigner and, as London mayor, was the country’s most popular politician. Even now, as a gung-ho Brexiteer in a deeply divided country, he has a net positive satisfaction score thanks to an ultimately successful first 100 days in Number 10, striking the new Brexit deal with Brussels he had promised and few believed possible.

Corbyn has just 15 per cent of voters happy with his performance and 75 per cent unhappy.

Surely Johnson can look forward to unwrapping a Conservative majority Parliament on Friday 13.

But not so fast.

“This is the hardest election to predict that as a pollster I can ever remember,” says Andrew Hawkins, chairman of ComRes. “The only certainty is uncertainty.”

Having an election close to Christmas may suppress turnout: the season’s “sprawling materialistic free-for-all” will compete for attention in a country where voting is not compulsory. Who will, or won’t, leave their centrally heated home on Election Day to go into the dark and cold of midwinter Britain? Will it suppress the old vote? The Northern vote? The student vote?

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is encumbered by low voter satisfaction scores.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is encumbered by low voter satisfaction scores.Credit:Getty Images

“Who forms the next government, and the UK’s future relationship with the EU, will boil down to how motivated voters are in a small number of marginals,” Hawkins says.

One in three voters have abandoned the major parties since the 2017 election, Hawkins points out. Less than half the country claims to generally vote for the same party in every election.

He calls this the “sheer promiscuity of the electorate”.

And remember, two years ago polls showed a Conservative prime minister even further (21 points) ahead of Corbyn’s Labour. Theresa May immediately called an election, ran a hapless campaign, and ended up with a hung Parliament that gradually descended into squabbling political deadlock.

Conservatives

Nevertheless, this election is Boris Johnson’s to lose.

Political scientist Matthew Goodwin, from the University of Kent, says the polls reflect strong support for Johnson among those who voted for Brexit in 2016.

Margaret Thatcher's 1983 campaign was helped by internecine warfare within the Opposition.

Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 campaign was helped by internecine warfare within the Opposition.Credit:Fairfax Media

The Prime Minister has a simple offer: a majority Conservative government will have the numbers in parliament to pass the Brexit deal Johnson struck with the EU, allowing the UK to leave the union by January 31 at the latest.

One of Johnson’s high-rotation talking points is Labour’s “dither and delay” on Brexit, in contrast to his ability and determination to “get Brexit done”. Surveys have found up to three-quarters of the electorate self-diagnose with “Brexit fatigue”. Johnson claims to have the cure.

And the splitting of the anti-Brexit vote between Labour and the Liberal Democrats will help the Conservatives even more – “a useful comparison is 1983, when internecine warfare between Labour and the SDP-Alliance helped Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives increase their number of seats despite winning a lower share of the vote than had been won in 1979”, says Goodwin.

But the path to a majority government isn’t as clear as it might be, Goodwin warns.

The Scottish National Party is likely to reclaim Conservative seats after the departure of the popular Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson. The resurgent Liberal Democrats are second to the Tories in nearly 30 seats, mostly in London and the south-east, and are a good chance to win a handful, especially as dozens of moderate Tories have chosen to retire as the Brexiteers remake the party in their dogmatic image.

So Johnson must win those Labour seats that voted for Brexit, says Goodwin. “His path to a majority is clearly visible but it is also one that is littered with obstacles and potential pitfalls.”

Will Tanner, director of the centre-right think tank Onward, says the Conservatives’ challenge is to appeal to someone he describes as “Workington Man” (Workington is a former mining town on the Cumbrian coast). Workington Man likes rugby league and Labour, he voted for Brexit and feels the country is changing too fast. He thinks universities and cities are too big, and communities too segregated.

“There has been a shift from the liberalising politics of the 1990s and 2000s, of Blair and Cameron”, Tanner says. “Things like community and family, of belonging, matter more than outright liberal economics.”

Johnson can lure these voters from Labour by emphasising social care over tax cuts: promising to spend on health services, for example.

Boris Johnson's election success could depend on his ability to appeal to "Workington man".

Boris Johnson’s election success could depend on his ability to appeal to “Workington man”.Credit:Bloomberg

Workington Man likes Brexit but “if [Johnson] says we’re going to become a low-tax low-regulation Singapore economy, clearly that would not work”.

Johnson regularly talks about backing “wealth creators”. He needs to watch that, says Tanner. Much better is his line about “levelling up” every region.

Another risk for Johnson is the very Brexit deal he is spruiking. He rushed into an election rather than submitting it to extended parliamentary scrutiny: but now there are six weeks for experts to find problems and unintended consequences.

Labour

Goodwin says this election is “populism on steroids”. Both parties are for the people vs the elites, and while Johnson’s enemy is the “pro-Remain political elite”, Corbyn’s is, and always has been, the rich.

Goodwin expects Labour’s vote to rally during the campaign.

“[Voters] are not just thinking about Brexit. They want to talk about the NHS and crime and are deeply pessimistic about the direction of the economy. Many aspects of ‘Corbynomics’, such as nationalisation, putting workers on company boards and increasing taxes for high-earners, are also very popular. We hear much about this being a ‘Brexit election’, but do not forget one of the key lessons of 2017: the left-right divide still packs a hard punch.”

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He says Corbyn needs to turn up the volume on environmental protection, warning about the alleged ‘privatisation’ of the NHS, and underlining Labour’s commitment to a second referendum on Brexit.

It is not hard to see seats that turned blue in 2017 flip red if Labour has a good campaign.

And the party could benefit from what Goodwin calls “the Revenge of the Remainers” in the nearly 40 Conservative seats that voted Remain or were just marginally Leave, and where incumbents have thin majorities.

Tanner says Corbyn is wise not to focus on Brexit.

“The Conservatives shouldn’t underestimate his ability to reframe the debate in ways advantageous to Labour,” as he did in 2017, he says.

And Corbyn has a new trick this time: Trump. He dubs the post-Brexit UK-US trade deal a “Trump trade deal” that will expose British health services to US competition. It’s an open goal for Labour: even among Conservatives, less than a third view the US President favourably. And Trump will be in Britain just a week before the election for a NATO summit.

But Tanner says Corbyn is “more vulnerable than people think he is”.

“He will drastically change the nature of the economy in terms of ownership and control in a way that would cut jobs and make the economy worse – these are very interventionist policies and his narrative becomes difficult.”

Speaking of economics, Jonathan Portes is dreading that debate in particular.

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The professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London sees the election as a “competition over the narrative about why the current system is failing to deliver … a populist right-wing nationalist narrative, or a populist left anti-capitalist narrative”.

“There will be a lot of pretend economics,” he says. “The people currently running Johnson’s campaign don’t believe in facts, let alone evidence. He simply makes things up to suit himself.

“And on the Labour side there’s also a certain amount of faith and dogmatism as opposed to expertise. It’s going to be a difficult election for us [economists], that’s for sure.”

Brexit Party

Hardcore Brexiteer Nigel Farage's party could harm the government's re-election prospects in Britain's first-past-the-post voting system.

Hardcore Brexiteer Nigel Farage’s party could harm the government’s re-election prospects in Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system.Credit:Steven Siewert

Will Nigel Farage’s party challenge both Conservative and Labour candidates, or will it leave pro-Brexit Tories alone and concentrate on scuppering Corbyn? It’s a tough call for this new party.

A recent by-election in Wales showed the potential to act as a wrecker for the Conservatives – in Brecon and Radnorshire the Liberal Democrats snuck to victory after the Brexiteers took just enough votes away from the Conservatives, who had held the seat until their MP was pinged for an expenses scandal.

Certainly Farage’s national rhetoric to date has been almost entirely aimed at the Conservatives. He accuses Johnson of “big broken promises” and calls his Brexit deal “a new EU treaty that is just not Brexit”.

“He could pull his punches,” says Tanner. “But if he really does come out all guns blazing at Boris not delivering [Brexit] on October 31, he will make life very difficult for the Conservatives, especially in places they need to win.

“His personal appeal is very strong. If you look at the rallies of the last six months he’s treated like a returning hero.”

Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems have a pretty simple task: make the most of their uncompromising “Stop Brexit” policy.

Leader Jo Swinson has been criticised as a fantasist for describing herself as a “candidate for prime minister”. But she claims they are “within a small swing” of winning hundreds of seats.

YouGov pollster Chris Curtis said he wouldn’t rule it out. And polling guru Sir John Curtice said his “safest prediction is that we will have a record number of non-Conservative and non-Labour MPs in this Parliament”, making it difficult for either Labour or the Conservatives to win an overall majority.

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Tanner agrees.

“I suspect the Liberal Democrats will be one of the main winners from this election,” he says – though he sees a “natural ceiling” to their appeal of 50-60 seats.

“On paper they are more of a threat to the Conservatives, but in practicality, the effect of their strategy will be to take more seats from Labour, or more targets away from Labour, splitting or undermining their vote.”

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