Having correctly predicted – before this year’s Party Conferences – that the UK would not leave the EU by 31st October and that a General Election would be called for December 12th, I am tempted to make another prediction. But my advice this time is to hold off laying a bet until at least the first day of December. Why? Because there are five significant factors making this the most unpredictable election in a generation.
- You can’t trust the polls – yet
Yes, the polls do get it wrong. They did in 2015 – failing to predict the Conservative’s (very small) majority. And then again in 2017, originally predicting a 100-seat majority for Theresa May. The BBC is currently reporting that the Conservatives’ 38% in the ‘poll of polls’ could be as low as 34% or as high as 42%. Similarly, Labour’s 28% could be as high as 32% or as low as 24. When the parties could statistically be within two percentage points one would be wise to be cautious.
- Polls are not counting the undecided and potential switch voters
At least 15% of voters are currently undecided and 22% are prepared to switch their vote, although you wouldn’t realise there was such uncertainty from the polls being quoted online and in the media. Around 57% of the voting public are “stickers”, those voting for one party no matter what. Those who are undecided are more often than not female, do end up voting and they generally are more Labour than national opinion polls suggest.
- Will gaffe-prone Johnson reappear?
Johnson has always had the potential to be a liability for the Conservative Party – a Trump-figure for this side of the Atlantic – but, for the moment, his personal poll ratings are much higher than Corbyn’s. Cameron and May, the former a friend since university days, kept him at arm’s length due to a perceived gaffe-prone tendency, and he’s reportedly found relating to voters difficult during his journeying around the country.
Arguably this lukewarm reception from voters when meeting Johnson face to face is due to Lynton Crosby protégé Isaac Levido and those running the Tory election campaign keeping him on a very short leash. The bombastic, gaffe-prone Johnson has been reined in, but for how long? Trump’s visit to the UK at the end of November could be one colossal banana skin.
- How will Jeremy Corbyn perform?
Already some commentators are remarking that Corbyn is lacking the energetic spirit that captured pubic attention in 2017. Then he was seen to relish campaigning, this time there have been accusations that he is robotic and failing to emote. When May went into hiding after the disaster of Grenfell, Corbyn looked almost Prime Ministerial. Can he turn his image around again? The 1-2-1 TV debates will be crucial here. Will Johnson make Corbyn look flat footed or will Corbyn make Johnson look a buffoon?
- Is it all about Brexit?
Perhaps – and it is a big perhaps – the Brexit issue will completely eclipse party loyalty and voters will prioritise getting Brexit done or stopped over their opinions of the parties and their leaders. Can Remainers vote tactically, can Johnson win over Leave voters in Northern seats?
There is also, of course, the possibility that Labour manages to turn the conversation towards pubic services. Note their big announcement on free full fibre broadband, an attempt to provoke a reaction from the Tories and move the conversation away from Brexit for several days. The Conservatives are going to have to make up a lot of ground with voters in the North and Wales in order to make up for the losses to the Lib Dems they’ll suffer in the South East and South West.
Ultimately, this election is going to be about Brexit, Boris, and Jeremy. That mix will be a tough and complicated one for pollsters to get their heads around. Who will lose and gain ground over the next four weeks? It’s too early to tell. I’m counselling all to hold off your bets for a while yet!