Jack Hutchison’s predictions for December 12th
We are about to enter the most important, fraught, volatile election in living memory. Arguably more unpredictable than anything since 1945. The Conservatives and Labour, separated by a huge margin of around 12%-15% in the polls, are fighting in a totally unpredictable political landscape. Seats once considered safe as houses are now marginals, marginals have become the safest of strongholds. The Lib Dems are now unequivocally the party of Remain. Labour, partly due to the contortions of Party Conference motions, are the party of negotiating another deal and then putting that to a second referendum. The Brexit Party the official party of No Deal.
It has been confirmed this morning that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, newly cast by a defiant Iain Duncan Smith in the Telegraph as ‘the Brexit party’ will have to contend with Farage’s tightly controlled, executively-managed political machine in nearly every seat apart from those few occupied by Tory hardliners. At a press conference this morning, Farage and Brexit Party chairman Richard Tice have offered Johnson two weeks to come to an agreement which would involve ditching the deal struck with the EU. That’s unlikely to say the least.
Farage, who has been quiet over the past few weeks, has seen public support for his party slip below 10%. But don’t expect the polls to stay like that for long. His first intervention began last night with a phone-in from President Trump to LBC. Trump, in a total break with convention, encouraged Johnson to form a pact with the Brexit Party and stated that under some aspects of the current Brexit deal the US “can’t make a trade deal with the UK.” 2-0 Farage in just a matter of hours.
That will be the motif of this election: constant upsets, sudden outbursts, and the usual logic turned on its head. The President of the United States on an LBC phone-in is just the first step into the rabbit hole.
So what’s going to happen? There are so many unknowns that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Will voters punish Johnson for not delivering Brexit by October 31st? Will Remain voters manage to vote tactically across the country? Will the Brexit Party’s decision to stand in all seats also significantly harm Labour?
The last question is particularly difficult to work out. Many Brexit-supporting Labour voters, especially in the North and former industrial areas, feel much more comfortable voting for the Brexit Party than the Conservatives. If these Leave voters back Farage they could considerably cut into the Labour vote. At the same time, however, many Leave votes came from UKIP and Conservative supporters in those Northern areas. If the Brexit Party stands in these Labour heartlands Labour could squeeze through the middle. The spanners being thrown into the General Election machine only churn out more unpredictability.
Much depends on whether the Conservatives can build a majority by retaining much of their middle-class base whilst also appealing to blue-collar voters that lean more small-c conservative on social and cultural issues. As centre-right think tank Onward has put it, this election is about ‘Workington Man’. Working class, white, over 45, and living in one of the Northern towns that has a strong Rugby League tradition. If Johnson can win over this voter, and prevent Farage peeling away too much of his Conservative vote in marginal southern seats, this could be a General Election which not only delivers a hefty majority for the Tories but also fundamentally realigns our major political parties along Remain-Leave lines.
For Corbyn, the chances aren’t looking good. Labour are a party still relying on their ‘legacy vote’, the large chunk of voters who say they’ll go Tory but, when it comes down to it, can’t put that cross next to Conservative when they’re in the ballot box. Winning a majority looks incredibly unlikely, especially with a resurgent Lib Dems looking to take seats away from them in heavily Remain cities. Anything worse than 2017’s performance will force succession at the top. Keep a close eye on the manoeuvrings of John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry who, together, could make a formidable pro-Remain pair once Corbyn has stepped down, and are rumoured to be in close discussion. Keir Starmer, straddling the left, centrist, and Remain wings of Labour could be in a formidable position if the left can’t organise effectively in the wake of defeat.
Ultimately, however, all of this is so far in the future. If we’ve been groping our way through a Brexit fog, the 12th December is still at a stratospheric distance. A week is a long time in politics and a six-week General Election an epoch. We might discover realignment, clarity, certainty. We could also get another hung Parliament, more Brexit delay, and no way out. I’m sorry to tell you that, as usual for contemporary British politics, all bets are off.