Election Race

Conservatives and Labour trade places on pre-election cohesion

Published: 31 October 2019
Author: Richard Parry

In the end, the third reading vote on the Early Parliamentary Election Bill on 29 October (438-20) said it all. The Conservatives mustered 281 votes, plus ten not-too-disloyal rebels just readmitted to the whip (ten remain excluded, and among them Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond could cause trouble during the campaign).  In a cherry on their cake they obtained the votes of over two-thirds of MPs which they were denied three times before.

Labour split three ways: 127 in favour, 11 against and 106 not voting. Labour could not make up its collective mind about whether a referendum on Johnson’s deal was a way forward preferable to an election. It was Jeremy Corbyn’s call to favour his long-standing election instincts, and in doing so he protected the Liberal Democrats and SNP from the risk that in search of a few more seats they would have conspired with the Conservatives and perhaps ushered through Brexit.

Boris’s vulnerability as the one who did not get Brexit done by 31 October is much attenuated by his achievement of the deal and healing of the split within his party. He has brought back remain-inclined Conservative voters (maybe 10% of the electorate, and many more in the parliamentary party) into the leave consensus. The Brexit Party is adrift from its potential Conservative no-deal allies.

The Conservatives have a coherent Brexit position, with full legal instruments in place and able to be implemented rapidly if they gain a majority. Their problems would come in 2020, when the three delays in the Brexit date have not been matched by any extension in the transition period. Within months, the single decision before 1 July on whether to extend the transition until the end of either 2021 or 2022 (and pay accordingly) would have to be faced. Bravado suggests that this would be rejected, leaving the UK vulnerable to a rocky ejection from the EU single market on 31 December 2020.

Labour’s stated position pays respect to both leavers and remainers, but ‘go back and negotiate a better deal’ lacks plausibility. Changes in the political declaration might be agreed quickly to reflect aspirations to a customs union and single market access; changes in the Withdrawal Agreement would be more difficult. Although the Liberal Democrat and SNP position of rescind and remain seems clearer, they will be pressed during the campaign on how they might compromise on it if they were in a position to influence government formation.

The first task for Labour is to avoid the situations of 1983 and 2010 and claim a firm second place over the Lib Dems early on as a prelude to the gap-closing they managed in 2017. Jeremy Corbyn, now perhaps off the pace in terms of animation and verbal facility, risks the fate of Clement Attlee in 1955 and Michael Foot in 1983 in having a last-hurrah campaign where defeat would give his party rivals the consolation of a leadership election – with no reliable left successor lined up to carry on the Corbyn project.

Boris Johnson is also vulnerable to campaigning fallibilities and he may find it hard to accept the role of one contending party leader among many, less protected and less able to do debates and interviews on his own terms. Donald Trump was booed when he made a rare truly public appearance at a World Series baseball match in Washington on 27 October, and Boris has recently favoured safe and controlled locations.  Theresa May showed in 2017 the disastrous consequences of hiding during an election.

In Scotland, the SNP can at the moment feel confident that the seepage of their constituency seats to Conservative and Labour, evident in the 2016 Scottish and 2017 UK elections, can be reversed. Labour’s six gains in 2017 (Coatbridge, East Lothian, Glasgow NE, Kirkcaldy, Midlothian, Rutherglen) are vulnerable on routine swings. Conservative gains in 2017 include five three-way marginals that have swung between parties over the years (Aberdeen S, Ayr, East Renfrewshire, Ochil, Stirling) and more rural seats in two geographical bailiwicks: five in the north-east and the three constituencies near the English border. Any holds, more likely in the rural seats, would be precious to the Conservatives. The first task for the Lib Dems is to protect their leader in East Dunbartonshire.   

Any predictions about the result bear the scars of most pollsters’ failure in 2015 and 2017 to achieve an accurate sample of those actually voting. Those two campaigns - and to a lesser extent that of 2010 – showed a dynamism before the poll and a sense of surprise on election night. That of 2019 is likely to leave all the parties vulnerable to setbacks and blunders right to the end.

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