Britain’s election goes off-script

Three weeks ago, when Boris Johnson finally succeeded in persuading Parliament to allow him to call an election, there was every expectation that the main battle ground would again be Brexit, as it had been in 2017 and, implicitly, in 2015 as well.  That was Johnson’s hope, and the Conservative party had its slogan ready – “Get Brexit Done” – and its main campaigning scripts all written.

For this to work, Johnson needed to unite the Leave vote – which meant either doing a deal with Nigel Farage and the Brexit party or, failing that, to isolate them and force them to back down – and to keep the Remain vote divided.  On both of these the Conservatives have had a good measure of success:  Farage refused a deal, but in the end blinked and withdrew his candidates from directly challenging sitting Conservative MPs, and although the Liberal Democrats have had some localised successes in a small number of seats, they have not been able to form a strong nation-wide Remain alliance. 

Indeed their leader, Jo Swinson, faces a tough fight in her East Dunbartonshire constituency, with a full slate of major party candidates against her and a real chance that the seat will revert to the SNP (who held it from 2015 to 2017).

So far then, so good for Johnson.  And indeed his party is well ahead in the opinion polls – though not as far ahead as the “strong and stable” Mrs May was at the equivalent stage of the 2017 election campaign.  But there are three awkward truths which may yet come back to haunt him and may yet turn him out of Number 10.

The first awkward truth is the premise that the election will indeed Get Brexit Done.  It will not.  The election is neither necessary to achieve the UK’s immediate exit from the EU – just before he called the election Johnson had finally got the House of Commons’ consent to the Withdrawal Bill and should have been able to secure the necessary legislation to put it into effect – nor likely to prove sufficient to solve the challenge of what comes next, in other words the UK’s future trade arrangements with the EU.  The post-departure transition period is very short – it is only meant to run until the end of 2020 – and the timetable for the negotiations (which no-one expects to be easy) is extremely taut.  The UK could be up against external deadlines and timetable pressures as soon as next June.

The second awkward truth is that, apart from a few diehards on both sides, most of the UK electorate does not actually consider Brexit a priority, and has other issues on its mind.  This may seem odd to those in Westminster whose lives for the past three years have been consumed by the issues of Brexit and who talk of little else, but in the wider electorate, the matter elicits nothing so much as boredom, and a strong commitment to talk about something else, anything else.

And there is lots else that the electorate does wish to talk about:  the state of Britain’s infrastructure, the funding of its health service (and in particular the provision of care for the elderly), the issue of climate change, the perceived growing inequality and divide between the successful and the rest, and so on.  The common thread here is that most of these are a reaction to 10 years of constrained government spending – which, awkwardly for the Conservatives, almost exactly coincides with their time in office, and which leaves them in a defensive position and immediately on the back foot on the campaign trail. 

Interestingly, two issues which the Conservatives usually find it easy to campaign on, viz law and order and immigration, do not appear to be high on the electorate’s worry list.  Even the high levels of knife crime have failed to bring law and order to the fore in the campaign, and as for immigration, while Home Secretary Priti Patel continues to try to raise the subject, her approach is at one and the same time so overtly and one-dimensionally hostile to immigrants but also so riddled with exceptions (anyone from doctors to nurses to IT specialists to students to a host of other “essential workers” will be exempt from the caps she proposes) that her credibility and with it her chance to lead a debate on the subject are reduced.

As a result the Conservatives are failing to turn the election campaign to the subjects they are comfortable with and wish to talk about, and are finding instead that it is going off-piste and into areas where they are vulnerable.  Which leads to the third awkward truth:  for all Mr Johnson’s much-vaunted campaigning skills (which are genuine), and for all Mr Corbyn’s weaknesses and failings (which are many), the Labour leader is proving – just as he did in 2017 – to be a formidable opponent on the campaign trail and to have an ability to understand and articulate the concerns of the wider electorate in a way which the Conservatives are finding very difficult either to emulate or to counter.

And so the election is fast becoming a debate not about Britain’s place in the world (in or out of the EU), but about the government’s place in the economy – the role of the state, the merits or otherwise of nationalisation, the appropriate level of government spending and redistributive taxation, and so on. From being a debate dominated by Leave-Remain (an issue on which the Conservatives are united and clear, and the Labour party is divided and muddled), it is becoming a more traditional Left-Right election, with the Labour party presenting the more united and coherent front and the Conservatives unsure whether to point out the high cost of Labour’s promises or to outbid them.

This is a considerable change from the 2015 election, in which the Conservatives managed to own the economic debate and forced Ed Milliband’s Labour party to moderate its spending proposals quite significantly, and even from the 2017 election, when despite Corbyn’s more expansive instincts the Labour promises on public spending remained relatively restrained.  This time it is the Conservatives who are the reactive party, responding to Labour’s initiatives and being forced into spending commitments they would otherwise not usually make.

The Conservatives are therefore finding that on the issue they care about most (Brexit), there is insufficient resonating interest in the electorate, and on the issues the electorate cares about most (the state of the economy after 10 years of austerity), they are perceived to be not so much the solution to the challenges facing Britain as their cause.  

Combine this with the fact that they have no natural partners – not a single other party will entertain entering a coalition with them, which means they need an outright majority to stay in power – and Mr Johnson’s gamble in forcing Britain’s third general election in just over 4 years is beginning to look more risky than many expected. If he cannot refocus the debate back to Brexit, his chances of still being prime minister as the UK enters 2020 look considerably less certain.