By a margin of 438 votes to 20, the House of Commons approved legislation paving the way for the first December election since 1923. The bill is still to be approved by the Lords but could become law by the end of the week.
The Britain Elects poll tracker that aggregates various voter opinion polls, updated on Sunday, puts the ruling Conservative Party (that does not have a majority in Parliament) ahead in the polls, with 35.1% of the vote. Labour stands seconds with 25.4% and the Liberal Democrats, a staunchly anti-Brexit party, is seen third with 18.1% of the vote. The Brexit Party, a new rival to the Conservatives among Brexit supporters, is seen with 11.3% of the vote and the Green Party with 4%.
With the Conservatives doing well in polling, the comfortable assumption is that they are headed for an okay majority. That is to assume too much. In an excellent article over at CapX Glen O’Hara sets out quite a few good reasons why. It’s a must-read, but to be treated with caution. I’d advise a very stiff drink first. In fact, not just the one.
I’d add the following extra twists of the knife, many of them stemming from the appalling timing of this vote.
By calling an election before Brexit has been delivered, Johnson has given Remainers in the affluent south a reason (once again) to “lend” their votes to the left-of-center Liberal Democrats, a party dedicated to reversing the referendum result. To be sure, that may help pave the way for a “progressive” coalition including (and possibly dominated by) Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left Labour party, but for these voters, love for “Europe” may well outweigh aversion to Corbyn.
And by calling an election before Brexit has taken place, Johnson has effectively given Nigel Farage’s Brexit party a reason to stay in the game. The Brexit party will take votes from both Labour and the Conservatives, but the effect is likely to be more damaging to the Tories. Defections to the Brexit Party may dent the majorities Labour currently enjoys in some heartland constituencies, but they will cost the Tories seats — and it’s seats that count.
What’s more, to think that this election will just be “about” Brexit is naïve.
For example, O’Hara writes:
Yes, there are lots of Labour seats containing many more Leave voters, and some of them – Dudley North, Barrow and Furness, Ashfield – might well fall to the Conservative advance in poorer, more blue-collar and traditionally Labour parts of the country. But are there enough of them, when Labour waverers will be coming home to the party, as very old and deep ties to the culture and idea of Labourism will stir, and as Labour and its more than 400,000 members begin to assert themselves on the electoral battlefield? That is a much more open question.
O’Hara is right to ask the questions that he does, but I’d even be surprised if many or any of the seats he mentions fall to the Tories. My suspicion is that Brexit is less important to many Labour (or former Labour) Leavers than it is to centrist or right-leaning Remainers. Whatever their distaste for the EU (not a straightforward matter, incidentally), many of those Labour Leavers in the party’s strongholds will, as O’Hara writes, “come home” to Labour, particularly if the party runs (as it will) a populist-left campaign.
Then there’s Scotland. Scotland saved the day for the Tories in 2017, but the Scottish party has lost its charismatic leader, Ruth Davidson, and Johnson is not the most obvious candidate to appeal to voters north of the border.
Let’s assume, very roughly but credibly, that they lose seven or eight of their Scottish MPs.
I suspect that the Tories could lose more than that.
My predictions are, of course, famously flawed, but it looks to me as if the Tories are finally going to pay the price for an approach to Brexit characterized by wishful thinking, arrogance and an unwillingness to dive into the details that Brexit was always going to demand. And if I’m right about the consequences of this bungling (I hope I am not), the result will be a defeat for the Conservatives and their replacement by a “progressive” coalition that includes the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National party and, of course, a Labour party that has swung far, far to the left.
And the consequences of that? Well, to repeat myself, I hope I’m wrong.