Unleashing Boris remains an option, but Tory campaign resists the temptation

Unleashing Boris remains an option, but Tory campaign resists the temptation

by Miles Saltiel
article from Tuesday 3, December, 2019

SO FAR, the election has been a slow bicycle-race. Farage unsaddled himself at the outset and Swinson has fallen off; I return to them below. As to the leaders of the major parties, their looks betray their strain: both have aged a decade in the last six months. Corbyn’s most recent TV appearance gave the impression of a patient under lithium, while Boris’s Marmite brio has been decisively caged by Isaac Levido, the Aussie running his show.

Halfway through the campaign, Labour is not quite on the ropes but has been damaged by a manifesto promising every child an early Christmas. Last Tuesday, Corbyn took further body-blows from the Chief Rabbi and Andrew Neil. Since then, the party has been finding it hard to get a hearing, with its NHS paperwork treated as a dodgy dossier in an unhelpful echo of Blair. Even so, young, new and diehard voters remain open to the party’s retail offer and its signature schmaltz.

The Tories’ discipline shows up as a lack of nerve, attracting the criticism that its manifesto is supine and Johnson is just phoning in his stump-speeches, though no-one is suggesting Maybot levels of remoteness. It’s clear what this is about: Levido knows that the election is for the Tories to lose and he wants to avoid mistakes: thus the conspicuous absence of Rees-Mogg, whose lofty ways are best rusticated to Northeast Somerset.

The halfway point has been marked by YouGov’s “MRP” poll. This uses a cookbook of techniques that have become famous as the only recipe to get May’s election right. The authors have been careful to put up caveats; the most important is that it comes a few days earlier than last time so it may miss the Tory lead closing. Then again, interviews from 20 to 26 Nov missed Labour’s car-crashes during the last day of fieldwork. YouGov’s commentary claims that the margin of error is incalculable but the poll nonetheless shows ranges, with the Tories set for a majority in all scenarios.

The poll offers constituency detail that changes the weather. Laggards have an opportunity to change tactics. Activists falling behind may be either invigorated or succumb to infighting; those to the fore risk complacency. No-one can predict the effect upon turnout or tactical voting. YouGov explicitly excludes the latter, but their figures show how it might work. The tables below set out the minimum, predicted and maximum vote shares in a couple of London constituencies where the LibDems have parachuted in candidates: Chuka Umunna in the Cities of London and Westminster; and Luciana Berger in Finchley and Golders Green.

YouGov calls both as “likely Conservative”, where “likely…” is their mid-point between “leaning…” and “safe…”. Nonetheless, the table shows that in the first example, either Labour or the LibDems might win on the published figures; and in the second, the Tories have it locked in by only a single percentage point. Figures like these will encourage the laggards to press on with tactical voting.

So to the endgame. The campaign’s last two weeks take place before an unusually hostile public. We can remember sixteen years of disappointments from those it trusted: all the way from the original “dodgy dossier”, to “not fixing the roof while the sun shined”, to Blair getting rich from his Rolodex, to the bust banks, to the expenses scandal, to celeb sexual predators, to “there’s no money left”, to the LibDems’ bait-and-switch on student fees, to austerity, to uncontrolled immigration, to botched Universal Credit. So many see the last parliament as a culmination of these failings that they are in no mood to entertain new promises. The Tories have responded best by pledging least. They must also be thanking their lucky stars that the last parliament’s dithering and their own new leader has blunted the sting of incumbency. Even so, they should not doubt the voters’ eagerness to punish any hint of complacency or entitlement, eg, Boris ducking the challenge of his own Andrew Neil moment.

To revert to the also-rans, the hapless LibDems must row back from the strategic disaster of their revoke stance. Swinson’s current play is to aim off Brexit, instead dwelling upon Johnson’s broken promises. It’s hard to see this as other than self-defeating as it evokes her party’s own record of bad faith – betraying the students over tuition fees and frustrating the referendum.

The Brexit Party will be giving mind to YouGov’s figures pointing to the threat it poses to Tory wins in Labour marginals in the North and Midlands. The Tories may hate Farage, but he is a keen tactician and it would be rash to rule out explicit or tacit collaboration.

Labour has been shown the brink. It now is to relaunch its campaign to focus on its base rather than go after Tory marginals. The party needs to avoid alienating metropolitan Leavers, so expect a bolstered retail offer to Remainers. Labour’s problem is its Santa Claus manifesto: how can Corbyn now say, “No honestly, we really mean this goodie this time.”?

The Tories may comfort themselves that they have avoided disasters so far. Nonetheless, there are plenty of risks ahead. They must avoid the appearance of complacency to the voters, let alone an outbreak of the real thing among activists. Trump is here, introducing additional incalculable uncertainty. Boris remains his party’s best calling-card but halfway in, he must strike a balance between blowing it and bottling it.

Sleepless nights all round.

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