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Where high-flying Boris could yet crash to earth

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AFTER two weeks of the election campaign, which now has less than three weeks to run, the lack of excitement over its result is palpable. The national polls have been more or less steady since the starting gun was fired, with the Tories hovering around 40 per cent support, Labour rising slightly to 30 per cent, the Liberal Democrats stuck at around 16 per cent, and the Brexit party falling to single figures. The weekend saw a slight strengthening of all these trends, with the Tory percentage settling in the mid-40s. If repeated on election day, that would produce a solid Tory majority of about between 40 and 60 seats. As the pundits say, however, these figures could all change very rapidly under the influence of events.

The problem for all the opposition parties is that there haven’t been many events – at least not the kind that change political fortunes. Iain Martin, who edits the Reaction website, makes the original point that Britain’s parliamentary politics have been fizzing with such neurotic energy in the last two years that the conventional exercises of the election campaign – manifestos, leadership debates, extremists slipping through the net into candidacies, etc – seem fairly dull by comparison. A truly big story was needed to provide a shock to the system and to disturb its slow, inevitable progress rightwards. Unfortunately for Labour, the biggest news story, and not just in the UK, has been the scandal of Prince Andrew’s relationship with the late disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein (and allegedly with at least one of the underaged women in Epstein’s entourage), which the prince’s BBC interview succeeded in the near-impossible task of making worse. It’s a scandal with legs that looks like running longer than the West End hit No Sex Please, We’re British. The strictly political effect of this scandal, however, has been to distract attention from the election altogether and so, in all likelihood, to freeze the Tory lead.

That left Labour hoping by the middle of last week that the launch of its manifesto would provide the required shock to reverse the trend of events. It certainly turned out to be a shock – an addition of £83billion in both extra spending and extra taxes, together with proposals to nationalise certain industries at a price ‘set by Parliament’ rather than the market. This programme was denounced by most financial commentators as likely to be catastrophic. But at least it was technically balanced, with the extra taxes paying for the extra spending, all carefully costed. Then on Sunday Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, panicking at its hostile reception, blithely threw in an additional £58billion from nowhere to compensate female pensioners born in the 1950s for losing early pension rights. That had several drawbacks. It was a transparent bribe. It was socially regressive, handing large sums of money to some wealthy women. Above all, it blew apart the notion that Labour had rooted its spending programmes in a responsible budgetary analysis. Together with Labour’s many other problems – especially the defection of longtime Labour sympathisers, including MPs, in response to evidence that Corbyn’s party was harbouring anti-Semitism – it handicapped the party when it was struggling hard to get lift-off.

The contrast with the governing party on finance and economics, already unfavorable, became even sharper on Sunday when the Tory manifesto was published and turned out to offer fewer spending commitments than the world had expected. Of course, Boris had already lavished quite a lot of taxpayers’ largesse on the National Health Service and public services generally. That said, a comparison of the two manifestos shows that for every pound of Tory spending promises, the Labour party is offering 28 pounds’ worth. That may be a pound too far for Labour’s credibility. Interestingly, moreover, the fact that the Tory manifesto is financially modest does not mean that it lacks bold policies. In an age of cultural politics, not all the big issues are about money. As Douglas Carswell (who has been both a Tory and a UKIP MP) points out here, Boris’s list of promises is quite radical politically.

Tucked away on page 48, for example, is a pledge to ensure that judicial review is no longer ‘abused to conduct politics by another means’. The implications of those few words are enormous. Then there’s a promise to establish a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to overhaul the way our governing institutions operate. Everything from the House of Lords to the way the civil service works would be on the agenda.

Read these words in the light of the ‘Establishment versus the People’ struggle over Brexit, and it seems that a Tory victory could lead to major changes in how Britain is governed, and that those changes would be in a more democratic or even a populist direction, at least from the establishment’s standpoint.

Since all these matters are pretty major issues, why have the polls moved so little and, if anything, in a Tory direction? Why too is real popular excitement apparently absent? The likeliest reasons are that all other issues are subordinate to Brexit in the popular mind, and most voters have made up their minds on that. They may not have decided exactly which party to vote for, because there are three parties backing Remain (Labour ambiguously) and two backing Leave. That’s the real divide in this election. As a result, some voters in both camps are pondering whether to stick with their traditional party choice or switch to another party with a better chance of electing a Remain (or Leave) candidate in their particular seat.

If we read the polls in that light, it looks at present as if Labour is seen by most Remainers as their best bet and the Tories are seen by Leavers as theirs. Hence the growing despair in the Lib Dem camp that they seem stuck at about 16 per cent support when they calculated that an unambiguous Remain stance would lift them into the twenties, as it did in the European elections. That also explains why Labour’s support is sticking quite solidly in the 28–32 percentage range when the party has been struck by so many bolts of lightning that it could power half the nation’s electric cars.

The net effect is that support for Remain is divided almost two-to-one between these two parties (in England, that is, since Scotland, with the pro-Remain Scottish National party in the game, requires a different calculation). In sharp contrast, Leave support is divided about twelve-to-one between the Tories and Nigel Farage’s insurgent Brexit party. It was always likely that a Tory party led by Boris Johnson and proposing some form of Brexit would scoop the great majority of Leave voters from the Brexit party, but Farage might perhaps have held on to, say, 8 per cent of voters, or one-sixth of the total Leave vote, if he had kept all his 600 candidates in the race. But Leave voters in both parties pressured him to withdraw, and after a public struggle with himself, he agreed to stand down Brexit-party candidates in all 318 Tory seats. As a result, the Brexit party is now at about 3 per cent in the polls, reflecting the broad decision of Leave voters to consolidate around the Tories. Since a badly divided Remain coalition now faces a united Leave one, that points to a substantial Tory victory, though short of a landslide.

Could that change? Of course. Events are unpredictable and have unpredictable effects. No one expected the Manchester bombing in 2017, still less its undermining impact on the Tory campaign of strong and stable government. But there is one decision by Boris that has so far strengthened the Tory lead which could perhaps turn sour.

Two weeks ago the Tories were quietly negotiating with Farage over a possible deal (that, as it happens, bore some resemblance to the electoral logic I sketched out in my last Brexit article). If the reports are accurate, Farage wanted the Tories to withdraw from about 40 northern seats where he believed the Brexit party had the better chance of defeating the Labour incumbent. In return, he would not put up candidates anywhere else. The Tories saw this logic but proposed a half-hearted version of it: namely, they would not withdraw their own candidates in the Labour seats Farage sought, but they wouldn’t campaign for them either. That deal fell apart, and recriminations are following. The Tories probably now think they got most of what they wanted – the Brexit party giving them a free run in 318 of 630 constituencies – and they’re probably right. But in rejecting the Farage deal, they rejected the near-certainty of a landslide for themselves, even if they also think they avoided the future difficulties that would be caused by having a party to their right in Parliament and the country.

Those calculations could go wrong in two ways. The first risk is long-term. If Boris wins but fumbles Brexit in the next Parliament – especially if he seems to be reneging on his promises, but even if he simply gets entangled in the legal and regulatory complications of the revamped EU withdrawal deal he now owns – that would give the Farage party the kiss of life in every by-election forever afterwards.

The second risk is that during the election campaign Boris might stumble in a way that makes either Tory voters or non-Tory Leave voters or both suddenly fear that they are about to be betrayed on some policy important to them. I doubt that this will happen on anything, but especially on Brexit, where the party’s self-discipline is strong. Boris’s refusal in the manifesto to rule out a No Deal Brexit if he doesn’t get the deal he wants in the end is testimony to that. He was reassuring the Faragistes that he would not betray them in the fine print. But there are always vulnerabilities that the sharpest eyes miss. My candidate for such an issue is immigration. The manifesto’s promises on that are almost all about improving the quality of immigration and insisting that immigrants pay into the UK’s health and public services before receiving benefits. Its broad tone is optimistic and welcoming. The sole reference to numbers of immigrants is a half-sentence that is not fleshed out further: ‘and overall numbers will come down’.

This is radically at variance with what the public believes on immigration numbers in the recent Sunday Times poll by YouGov (hat tip to Ramesh Ponnuru and Karlyn Bowman) here. Turn to page five of this chart and you will find that 54 per cent of the Brits want less immigration and only 7 per cent want more. The figures are even more lopsided when those questioned belong to groups that the Tories rely on for support.

That’s exactly the kind of issue that a talented political entrepreneur such as Farage could exploit to suggest that Boris and his party are not fulfilling what they are thought to have promised in the Brexit campaign. And once a stone is dislodged, an avalanche will sometimes follow.

Almost certainly it won’t happen, but if I were Boris, I might think of fleshing out that half-sentence, if only to avoid spending my life regretting that I didn’t accept Nigel’s absurdly generous offer of a landslide.

This article first appeared in the National Review on November 26, 2019, and is republished by kind permission.

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John O’Sullivan
John O’Sullivan
John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.

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