Election notebook #1: What I think will happen (AKA my emotional hedge prediction of a Conservative victory)

by Stephen Tall on November 1, 2019

“You must be excited” friends and colleagues say about the coming general election. And usually I would be. Every election since 1992 I’ve followed avidly, fascinatedly.

But this one I’ll follow dutifully. It is, I do realise, honest, the most consequential election of my lifetime. But the campaign is going to be dire, isn’t it? All heat, no light (far more than usual).

The Brexit debate is still stuck in 2016, with the Conservatives desperate to turn the whole debate into a People v The Remain Establishment fight, aided and abetted by a shallow media uninterested in serious analysis of the trade-offs inherent in our future relationship with the EU.

Maybe a few other major policy issues will get a look-in. The 2017 election, after all, turned out not to be (so much) a Brexit election, but (at least as much) an election about cuts to public services. Though it’s hard to argue that, for instance, the controversy over the Conservatives’ social care proposals actually advanced public policy making, with parties now, understandably, giving it a wide berth despite the need to work out how we do provide affordably for an ageing society with increasingly complex care needs.

And as for the election outcome… well, I strongly suspect that will be at least as dire for ‘my side’. I may be wrong, of course. It’s been known. In 2017, I was sure the Conservatives would win a commanding majority. In 2015, I was sure the Lib Dems would defy the worst predictions. At least this time, as I record my priors, I’m fully aware they may turn out to be utterly wrong.

Indeed, I think there’s a strong temptation in election punditry to project the last election on to the current election. In 2010, very few predicted a hung parliament because it hadn’t happened in 36 years. In 2015, everyone expected a hung parliament because that was what had happened in 2010. In 2017, everyone expected a Conservative majority because that was what had happened in 2015. And in 2019, no-one is daring to predict that the party with consistent big poll leads on the three key metrics (party rating, leadership, and economic competence) will win because … well, because 2017.

And yet, the hard reality is that the Conservatives are in a pretty good place right now. Boris Johnson has secured a Brexit deal his party is prepared to unite behind (at least for now). There are signs Brexit Party voters are rallying to the Conservative cause. The current parliament is blamed by Leavers for the failure of the Prime Minister’s rash ‘do or die’ Brexit pledge.

By contrast, the so-called ‘Remain Alliance’ (generously extended to include Labour, though it is still, officially, a pro-Brexit party) is divided, with Labour and Lib Dems currently within touching distance of each other in the polls. The Conservatives can win an awful lot of seats on 35% of the vote under our obtuse electoral system if the 55% anti-Tory vote is ineffectually distributed between Labour, the Lib Dems, and Greens.

Sure, the 2017 election outcome should make us cautious of assuming those Conservative advantages are insuperable. However, 2017 was different — for two linked reasons. First, it was genuinely a ‘snap’ election. It was called before it needed to be, unexpectedly. Secondly, and perhaps because it was a ‘snap’ poll (as well as the first post-Brexit election), the campaign did actually matter. Usually campaigns make little difference on a national level (obviously they can influence individual marginal seats). But, in 2017, the Conservatives under-performed spectacularly, Labour bucked the risible expectations of it, while the Lib Dems flatlined (with isolated patches of recovery).

Both factors may also apply this time. But, I think, with crucial differences.

First this is not a ‘snap’ election, not really. While Theresa May didn’t ‘land’ her reason for triggering an election, I think Boris Johnson has; most people, Leave or Remain, accept this parliament has run its course and it’s legitimate for the new Prime Minister to ask for a fresh mandate.

Secondly, it seems unlikely (though can’t be ruled out) that the Conservatives will re-run as disastrous an election campaign as 2017’s was. Boris Johnson has his flaws, and they may be painfully revealed during this contest. But he is more of a known quantity. He ran as London mayor twice; he led the Leave campaign; he has just fought a leadership election.

Moreover, he faces an opponent in Jeremy Corbyn who no longer benefits from being a largely unknown figure. His leadership ratings are dire and, while I suspect they’ll improve, it seems likely he’ll be a drag on the Labour ticket this time round. And, unlike in 2017, Labour does not (yet at any rate) have a coherent Brexit policy that the leadership, its MPs and members can unite behind. As for the Lib Dems, while the party is on the up and almost certain to make gains from the Conservatives, it starts a long, long way back in most seats, likely putting a low-ish ceiling on its 2019 targets.

All of which leads me to conclude the Conservatives are more likely than not to win a majority this time. Could be slender, could be decent, could even be a landslide. The campaign will determine that.

But if I were to be wrong, and the Conservatives were to fall short or perhaps Labour even win, what would be the most likely reasons? Here’s a septet…
(1) “Events, dear boy” (as Macmillan didn’t say) — for instance, the 2017 terrorist attacks raised the profile of cuts to policing in a way no-one could (or would want to) have anticipated.
(2) That 2019 turns out not be a Brexit election, with other issues, such as the NHS and schools, dominating instead.
(3) That the flaws/risks in Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal start to become more apparent, with voters clocking that Brexit won’t actually be over by Christmas, but in reality just starting. Can Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party successfully make this argument in a way which resonates and hurts the Conservatives electorally?
(4) Boris Johnson has major leadership and personality flaws, any of which might be damagingly exposed during the campaign.
(5) Remain voters may well be more motivated and more likely to show up than Leavers at this election in order to vote against the Conservatives.
(6) The Lib Dems may well get squeezed by Labour and/or Remain may successfully encourage tactical voting that offsets united the impact of Leavers uniting behind the Conservatives (with the SNP winning Scotland; the Lib Dems making inroads into Conservative suburban/commuter-belt England; and Labour maintaining its stronghold on Leave-voting northern towns).
(7) Conversely, there may be a ‘Swinson factor’ with the as yet largely unknown Lib Dem leader attracting swathes of Conservatives Remainers (such as Times columnist and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris).

As Theresa May found out, calling an early election, however propitious the circumstances may appear, is innately risky. Boris Johnson has gambled. In six weeks’ time we’ll know if he’s come up Trumps.