Building the machine

When I was a boy, and first getting my head around the idea of government, I learnt that the Prime Minister was in charge of the country. If they said something, we would have to do it.

At the age of six-ish, this was all that was needed to temporarily knock dinosaur hunter off the top of my list of career ambitions. But having spent years on the fringes of government, I’ve learnt that the underlying assumption is deeply untrue. The PM really doesn’t decide everything. And, after the past 72 hours, it seems fairly clear that the PM will now decide nothing.

Practically-minded civil servants won’t spend long grieving this. This isn’t for political reasons – but one of the least reported characteristics of government is its way of taking decisions. In the case of Theresa May’s government, that approach would best be likened to trying to get your passport stamped at a Soviet bloc customs post. Despite you thinking everything is in order, you have to wait an age while a surly apparatchik finds fault with you, before grudgingly waving you through, or possibly having you hauled off as a saboteur. This was not intended to win Whitehall’s respect, and didn’t.

Conversely, one of the unsung pleasures of the Coalition was the decision-making body known as the Quad – the two top Tories and two top Lib Dems – who were able to make decisions swiftly, effectively and on behalf of the whole of government.

Now, after the coup that dare not speak its name, we will have a new way of doing business – something that is judged to represent a consensus of the shadowy group that now runs the government. Whether it works any better will be anyone’s guess, but it will mean that Whitehall’s day-to-day operating model has to change once again.

The timebomb

With that done, government’s next question is what the hell to do about Brexit. If anything could have convinced six-year-old me that I didn’t want to be Prime Minister, the next 24 months would have been it.

Over the past day and a half, it has become clear just how badly government is caught by the Brexit trap.

  • Tory moderates have made a sustained pitch over the weekend that they want a soft Brexit (i.e. retaining access to the single market, and by implication having some kind of free movement of labour). You don’t know how many people this is, but even if you only count the Tories saying this on national television, it’s more than the government’s wafer-thin majority.
  • But if the government were to flip over to a soft Brexit plan, it would only make things worse. The Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party (aka ‘the bastards’ of John Major’s day) will be equally angry, and would launch a rebellion of their own. That would just as easily leave the government without enough votes to do what they want.

So whatever they choose, the government is outvoted, and probably collapses.

I don’t see how you solve the parliamentary arithmetic on this – it can’t add up either way. Nor is it something the DUP can solve – you need a good 30+ extra votes to stand any chance of winning the battle, whichever side you pick.

People outside of the Tory party have been suggesting that the way forward is to have a cross-party group on the shape of Brexit – a frighteningly grown-up idea that therefore has no place in our constitution whatsoever. But for my money, I can’t see another way of fixing this problem that doesn’t tear the Tory party in two or forces them to a second election – which is exactly what the party grandees are trying to avoid.

We can look forward to the Queen’s Speech with interest. If the government is really lucky, someone will have an answer by then.

At the beginning…

That was a shock. So much for my powers of prediction.

Oddly, this feels like a moment of renewal. In this election, Labour have run with a positive platform based on the idea of doing things differently – and that has resonated with the public. Setting aside the questions of how to do it and how to pay for it, it moves the debate beyond the sterile and bland exchange of soundbites. People have found something that they want, and have used the election to push the government towards it.

That said, this is a totally unworkable parliament. How government can deliver the biggest policy challenge in fifty years without a majority is entirely beyond me. Back to the office, to go make things work.

At the end…

Will Theresa May’s gamble pay off?

As with the past two elections, the exit poll will be the big shock moment. Exit polls haven’t been bad in recent years – or to put it another way the ordinary polls have been so poor that the exit poll is a big step up in quality of information. If this says 50+ Tories, and you’ve got a big meeting tomorrow, you can afford to take the night off.

But if you do want to stay up for the whole thing, then watch out for the following:

  • The Tory win depends on winning a lot more votes in the north, and locking down the Midlands. You get your first sign of how well this will work when the first result comes in from Sunderland. I’ll be watching the total number of Tory votes here – if there’s a big rise (or equally, if there isn’t), this is the time to place any last-minute election bets.
  • In the West Mids, there is potential for a lot of permanent-Labour constituencies to elect their first Tories ever. Coventry hasn’t elected a Tory since at least 1964 – if the Tories are doing well, they’ll pick up two tonight.
  • Equally, if you want to see the limits of what the Tories can do, look to South Yorkshire. Seats like Don Valley, Rotherham and (in some of the wilder dreams) Ed Miliband’s Doncaster were looking vulnerable once. I doubt they will fall, but strong Labour holds here bode poorly for the blues.
  • A totemic win for the Tories would be Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s old constituency. With a Labour majority of just under 7,000, and 6,400 UKIP voters, this is within the bounds of possibility.

Will the revolution eat its children?

One of Labour’s problems in the 2010 election was that its top figures were getting ready for a succession contest rather than government. The same is true now. Both pro- and anti-Corbyn people will try to spin the results to blame the other side for what went wrong.

  • For Corbynistas, the key question is how high is the overall Labour share of the vote? Higher than Brown (29%)? Higher than Miliband (30.4%)? Higher than Blair in 2005 (35.2%)? The answer to this could well be ‘yes’ on all counts, given the collapse in third party voting. This is the most likely defence from the idea that the election has been a disaster.
  • The counterargument will be based on seats. A good share might not be reflected in the seat total – given that Labour votes are in the wrong seats. Under 200 would come across as a very bad result indeed, after a campaign that has gone very well. The number of ‘deep Labour’ seats that fall, having never voted Tory before, will be especially sensitive here.
  • And how well do Corbyn’s enemies do? People like John Woodcock in Barrow and Wes Streating in Ilford North are sitting on majorities that should make them dead men walking. If they survive, they will have a personal mandate devoid of Corbyn, which will be very important in the Westminster power game.

Where did all the Lib Dems go?

This has been a dire campaign from the Lib Dems, so any wins will feel sweet. But they may be scant.

  • The best chances of pick-ups will be in South West London. Based on my local soundings, I’m reasonably confident that they will hang on to Richmond and regain both Twickenham and Kingston. If you want to put money on this, Kingston feels the most certain on the strength of a very strong local campaign.
  • The next test is what happens in the university seats. Cambridge is a rare battleground between the Corbynite young and hard-core Remainers – and while it should have been a Lib Dem cert, it’s now competitive.
  • Then there may be some old Lib Dem seats that flip back outside of London. I’d watch Bath (probable gain) and Lewes (probably stays Tory). But the vast majority probably aren’t coming back.

Special Places

  • Scottish politics are weird. I have no idea how many seats the SNP will lose, so there’s potential for a few surprises. Whether the SNP loses seats (or how many it loses, and who the sitting MPs are) will be important to the moral case for a second indy ref.
  • Beneath the radar, Welsh Labour has allegedly had a very good campaign. That could mean some surprise Labour pick-ups. I’m watching both Newports.
  • London has been increasingly strange in recent elections. The reasons for this are even stronger in a Corbyn world. Croydon Central, Brentford and Ealing Central are all currently very close. Kensington could be a surprise Labour pick-up based on local politics. Equally, out to the east you could see heavy Leaving constituencies like Dagenham turning blue.

One last thing

Don’t bother with telly news. Everything you need to know will be on twitter a good 15 minutes earlier. The dog hours of the night, from 11:00 to 1:00, will be nothing but talking heads with nothing new to talk about; but out on Twitter you’ll be right in the thick of it.

Have fun.

The Home Straight

4-large_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqqvzuuqpflyliwib6ntmjwfsvwez_ven7c6bhu2jjnt8It’s now less than 100 hours until the polls open. It’s never too late to say that everything could change – that’s been brutally proven more than once this week. But now is the time to recap on what has happened with the campaign, and what it might mean for Thursday’s result:

When this election began, it looked like it was going to be six weeks of Tories shooting fish in a barrel. Turns out the fish know how to return fire. It is a campaign that the Tories have lost, and Labour by-and-large have won. Had Labour not been coming from so far behind, we might now be talking about Labour as the leading party; but given that six weeks ago we were talking about their potential extinction, they’ve come a hell of a long way.

Compared to our assumptions of a few weeks ago, what has changed?

This hasn’t been the Brexit election. Many of us thought it would be – to the benefit of Theresa May and the Lib Dems. But there has hardly been any serious debate about what Brexit should be like, or what we want our politicians to do about it. Can you describe Labour’s Brexit policy? I know I can’t. I think we’ve all agreed it’s too complicated, and we want to talk about something else – and the winners here have been Labour. (Though there is a silver lining for the Tories – the predicted collapse to the Lib Dems in the South West is no longer on the cards, which puts them up about 10-20 seats on where most people expected them to be).

The shine has come off of Theresa May, and in a big way. The social care climbdown has fatally weakened her with the public, and probably with her own party. We’d had hints of this beforehand (remember Hinkley Point?), but now it’s a permanent part of her reputation. All of that strong-and-stable rhetoric really was leaving a hostage to fortune, and the inability to follow-through makes her and her team look like a bunch of amateurs. Her leadership ratings have lost that new-car smell that they once had.

But Jeremy Corbyn has learnt how to behave. Some unsung hero in Corbyn’s office has got Labour working. The man has spoken clearly, been ready for interviews, stayed on-message and was even seen wearing a tie. Unlike his team, he has remained gaffe-free for six weeks. Never mind that this is the type of safety-first politics that Corbynistas despise – it works, and he’s got his hearing with the public. It may not win the election, but barring upsets it looks like he will have outperformed expectations and will therefore be able to resist ousting by the moderates.

But before you reach any conclusions…

…I can’t help noticing that these stories are all views from inside of the Westminster bubble. If we learnt one thing from the Brexit referendum, it was that votes aren’t decided in Westminster alone. When we didn’t listen to ordinary people on the (provincial) streets, we found ourselves with shock results.

When the campaign began, we were actually getting some good reportage coming from unvisited constituencies up and down the country. Since the omnishambles phase of the campaign got underway, all of that has fallen away, as journalists realised they could earn their pay-packets without leaving Zone 1.

One of the main themes coming through from that earlier reporting was just how unpopular Jeremy Corbyn was on doorsteps up and down the country. I got the impression that he had become the most divisive politician since Margaret Thatcher (and though she won three elections, Corbyn is starting from entirely the wrong base to do the same). There’s no evidence with which to test whether this is changing – but to judge by the reactions I get from my non-London friends, the tighter the result the stronger that distaste becomes.

Selling the pig

Tory election guru Lynton Crosby has a favourite saying – that you can’t fatten a pig on market day. In other words, the things that decide elections don’t happen in the campaign, but in the years that lead up to them.

A lot hinges on whether he’s right. If this election is about the past six weeks, the Tories are in for a deserved pasting. But if it’s about what came before, we could easily be shocked by the scale and scope of a Tory landslide.

Thinking mechanically, I think a lot will depend on the turnout in northern and Midlands seats. Do people who don’t like Corbyn actually vote against him, or just stay at home? You should be able to tell a lot by the first few seats to declare – if there’s a big rise in the total Tory vote, a landslide is on. If the Tory vote is stable, but turnout falls and the Labour vote declines, it means that the anti-Corbyn vote is sitting this out and the Tories are in for a much smaller boost than they hope.

Changing the map

The other factor in play is Labour’s hope of bringing in a generation of disengaged voters to help fix the system. A lot of the recent polling surge for Labour comes from young voters doing just this – saying they are sure to come out and vote, and pushing up Labour numbers.

You can afford to be a bit sceptical here. First off, there’s an old saying that it’s dangerous trying to win a campaign by appealing to non-voters, because they have a habit of not turning out to vote. Second, under a first-past-the-post system it matters a lot where your voters actually are. A lot of young university students can win you seats like Cambridge or Manchester Withington, but they’re sod-all use if you’re trying to hold on to Great Grimsby or Rochdale.

Throwing it all away

And the last thing we can’t account for is just how wrong the government will muck things up this week. One terrorist attack, though tragic on a human scale, allows a PM to appear statesmanlike and commanding. Three is a different story, especially when that PM is an ex-Home Secretary. I wonder how many people are privately asking just how good a job she’s actually doing of keeping us safe, and what that will mean in the voting booth.

So, with only a few hours to go, get in the popcorn, brew up the coffee, and prepare for government.

Unforced Errors

gettyimages-681870004This election campaign isn’t short on changes. The last time I posted it seemed that nothing could stop the Tories from romping home to victory. Since then, team May has been proving that it is perfectly within their power to turn a landslide into subsidence.

Never mind that the policy was a good ‘un (or, more accurately, the least-worst ‘un) in that it takes wealth from the group who need it least (the dead) to relieve pressure on the overloaded working population. The fact is that if you’re planning to do something like this, you do not under any circumstances do it in the middle of an election campaign. You should not need to be told this.

I’ve been wondering for a while why the Tory campaign was failing to dominate the news cycle. After all, they did call this election and they’re meant to be pitching for a massive popular mandate. But so far the only party that has had a good national-level campaign has been Labour – and with a leader who is meant to be poison.

One hypothesis was that the Tories wanted to give air time to team Corbyn, because that’s the sort of advertising money can’t buy. But I’m coming round to the view that it’s got more to do with the fact that Team May is bloody useless at managing a media campaign.

I don’t actually think this story will have much of an effect on the end result of the campaign. The election is being decided outside of the Westminster bubble, and out there the main fact (at least among the C2DEs whose shift the Tory strategy depends on) is that Jeremy Corbyn is a pillock who should be allowed no closer to Number 10 than is required to take out the non-confidential bins.

But I do think this should concern people who watch government for the long term. Number 10 is run by a very small clique of people who Theresa May trusts. This mess-up has been placed at the door of Nick Timothy, the most influential member of May’s coterie. Such a public emballsage seriously weakens his power and standing. Plenty of people want to take him down, but if he disappears there’s an honest question whether anyone else can take his space inside May’s bunker. Once a team like that falls apart, the PM either has to change her way of working, or her colleagues will quickly hunt around for a better option.

They say the Tory party is an absolute monarchy punctuated by periods of regicide. Failure is not something that is long-tolerated in a Conservative leader. Right now, there’s no chance of anyone threatening the PM. But based on the past few days, one or two people will be remembering to oil their daggers.

The Workers’ Flag is deepest blue…

249px-blue_flag_waving-svgIf you’re a Tory, this has been a good 48 hours. It’s not going to be often that you look at the electoral results for Teesside and see ‘Conservative gain’ next to it. I imagine it kindles the same sort of feeling an old friend of mine would have got from seeing Surrey vote in the Socialist Workers.

Indeed it’s almost impossible to find a gloomy angle on yesterday from a Tory perspective:

  • The Tories have penetrated deep, deep into Labour heartlands. If they can win council seats in East Glasgow, there is literally nowhere that they’re not cutting through.
  • Good campaigning will not help their enemies. Sion Simon was a good candidate for West Mids mayor, but still he lost, in an area with a 2015 lead of about 9 points.
  • Contrary to my earlier expectations, the Lib Dem pull doesn’t outclass that of the Tories. They lost seats overall.
  • And most dramatically of all, UKIP lost every council seat it was defending, and picked up only one new one. That means their total haul was smaller than that of the Cornish independence party Mebyon Kernow. All the benefits of this run to the Tories.

Against that, it would be futile to pretend that the Tories aren’t heading for a three-figure landslide. It would also be silly to pretend Labour isn’t heading for a historically dreadful result – one of those yardsticks used by television pundits when they want a ‘worst since X’ comparison.

Labour’s near-death experience

Notwithstanding this, the results from the local elections make me cast my mind forward five years. If it’s obvious that Labour is about to lose badly now, what happens afterwards? Is the Labour party about to enter a death spiral, or not?

For me, I think not. It’s tempting to sketch out the final demise of a party which has fundamentally lose touch with the British public – but if you look at the results, this is not the case. Even in yesterday’s shock Tory wins, some of those results were very close. A 2% swing would have turned West Mids, Teesside and West of England into Labour victories – and I’m willing to bet the depressive power of Jeremy Corbyn is substantially larger than that.

If you want to imagine the end of the Labour party, it isn’t enough to say that the party loses votes – it has to lose its status as the real opposition. It can happen – it has been happening in Scotland since 2014 – but it’s not happening in England. The coming general election looks like being a very extreme example of a conventional election, and not one of those elections (like Canada in 2011, for example) where the rules of the game fundamentally altered.

If you assume that Labour comes to its senses after the election, it has a lot of ground to make up. But equally, it has a lot of voters who are primed to listen, and where Labour remains well-placed to win. It will take more than one electoral cycle to repair the damage of this, but unless there is an alternative opposition Labour’s decline has to bottom out at some point. I’d argue they can’t scrape much lower than this.

Tories should enjoy this moment. Right now, they are achieving results which match the faith of their footsoldiers, rather than any expert’s rulings of what is and is not ‘possible’. It would be unkind to begrudge them such a moment. But I wouldn’t expect it to become business as usual.

Raising the dead

480953528It’s no fun being a Liberal Democrat. But that’s sort of the point. It’s a party whose purpose is to lose – witness the past ten years. In opposition, people couldn’t agree with Nick enough. But the sight of a Liberal Democrat actually in government, making decisions and having to compromise, proved the swiftest antidote to their support it was possible to have. Then, after taking one of the worst electoral shellackings of the twenty first century, people are once again signing up in droves.

In theory, a party that exists for beaten liberals is pretty well attuned to the zeitgeist. From a branding point of view, it feels just right for the moment. But a friend of mine posed a very good challenge the other day. He, like me, had predicted that the Lib Dems will finish with more than 30 seats. But he’d then been challenged to name which ones they were, and couldn’t. And, on the spot, I struggled too.

So how would the Lib Dems perform the greatest comeback since Lazarus?

It’s just a flesh wound!

Don’t underestimate just how badly beaten up the Lib Dems are. It sounds bad enough to say that at the last election they went from 49 seats to 8, but that’s only the start of the bad news. It isn’t just the fact that they lost – it’s how they lost.

  • The UK system can create a situation where you can lose a lot of seats without losing voters (Ed Miliband lost 26 seats, but actually increased Labour’s vote share). But the Lib Dems didn’t just lose a few crucially placed supporters – they lost two voters in every three.
  • They lost all but one of their seats in Scotland – a traditional reservoir of support and home to two of the past three leaders.
  • They lost every seat south of London – which you wouldn’t have got odds of 1000-1 on before election night.
  • Their vote in the north, where they had in effect been the second party, vanished completely.
  • And since the Lib Dems depend heavily on being good constituency MPs, the loss of so many incumbents destroys one of their greatest selling points.

It’s a sobering fact that there would have been more surviving Lib Dem MPs if, instead of the 2015 election, the entire parliamentary party had been infected with ebola.

Indeed, the scattering of remaining Lib Dems has something in common with a map of survivors after some terrible disaster – not so much reflecting a plan or strategy as a question unto god of ‘why me?’

Not playing by the old rules

The conventional way to win an election campaign is to build support in the most marginal constituencies, erode down opposing majorities and get yourself back into power. That would mean that Lib Dem seat number 30 would be Portsmouth South, where they are 5,200-ish short.

But this strategy probably isn’t going to work. And it probably doesn’t need to for the Lib Dems to meet or beat my expectations.

Instead of campaigning in these sorts of places, the most visible Lib Dem event so far has been in Vauxhall, where Labour lead them by 22,500 votes. ‘Labour’ for the purposes of this argument is the arch-Brexiteer Kate Hoey, representing a constituency that voted 77% remain.

The Lib Dems aren’t planning to re-fight 2015. Like the Tories, they’re betting on a new political landscape, based around a Leave/Remain split. Any doubts they may have had on this score were settled by the Richmond Park by-election, where they overturned a conservative majority of over 23,000, largely on the incumbent’s publicly pro-leave stance. If they can win the Remain vote on a large scale, they have traded a losing hand for one that wins – at least where they choose to play.

Predicting earthquakes

I challenge anyone to predict the scale of their success at this with any accuracy. If Richmond Park were repeated in every seat in the country, Tim Farron would be in Number 10. How far short of that these trends stop is anyone’s guess. But a good outcome for the Lib Dems is built out of the following elements.

  • Holding their existing seats (not tricky) and resurrecting some of the victims of 2015 based on personal followings
  • Picking up seats where Remain is strong – London and the university towns in particular, and possibly some northern city centres
  • Profiting from principled voting by arch-remainers in places which are less strongly pro-remain, but where the Lib Dems have historic strength.
  • Ditto in Scotland from a tactical unionist vote.
  • Lastly, hoovering up votes from people who can’t bring themselves to vote Corby or Tory, and are willing to give the Lib Dems a go. Ideally, achieving this through signing a ‘progressive alliance’ with the Greens.

Safe bets are places like Cambridge and Twickenham. If they don’t take Bath they’re doing badly; if they can pick up Oxford East and Abingdon, then they’re doing better than expected; and if they can regain Manchester Withington (big student population) then it bodes very well indeed. Some historic Lib Dem seats like Taunton and Yeovil will be necessary to get to 30, but expect most of them to stay Tory. In Scotland, watch North East Fife (St Andrews) to see if students + tactical unionists = Lib Dem pickup. The shock results, if there are any, will be in London constituencies along the Thames – Bermondsey, Vauxhall, and for a real surprise Kensington or even Putney.

Does that get you to 30? It can do. Does it let the Lib Dems become the third-largest party again? Only if they’re very lucky. But if there’s one party whose performance we’re most likely to get completely wrong, it would be the Lib Dems.

A secret message from the Prime Minister

4-large_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqqvzuuqpflyliwib6ntmjwfsvwez_ven7c6bhu2jjnt8At the weekend, I sat down with a cup of tea, and tried to figure out why I was wrong. After too many elections where I, like the rest of the herd, expected a wholly different outcome, it felt sensible to assess my likely mistakes before I actually made them.

Indeed, the polls are already giving me reason to doubt my earlier assessment of a 20-50 seat majority. I’ll take national polls with a 20-25% lead with a pinch of salt; but the poll suggesting the Tories are on track to win the most seats in Wales, and two suggesting the Tories could pick up as many as twelve seats in Scotland both made me realise I could be seriously underestimating how much change might be on the cards.

My post last Tuesday was based on a handful of assumptions:

  • The Tories are in a strong place, have momentum behind them and can be expected to pick up seats.
  • The Lib Dems have even more fire in their bellies, and had an unusually bad result last time. That gives them a double potential to gain seats, which is likely to be more powerful than what the Tories can muster (at least in the seats the Lib Dems choose to target).
  • Labour is doing very badly, and is unlikely to field a good campaign. They will be losing seats, not taking them.
  • But Labour also has a strong reserve of support that never seems to go away no matter how badly they do.
  • And all of these points apply better to England (excluding London) than they do to the rest of the UK.

Assumptions one to three look fairly sound. But I am left wondering about numbers four and five.

Listen for the dog whistle

It was while I was reflecting on this that I listened again to the PM’s election announcement. There was one section which everyone picked up on in the media coverage:

“The country is coming together, but Westminster is not. In recent weeks Labour has threatened to vote against the deal we reach with the European Union. The Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standsill. The Scottish National Party say they will vote against the legislation that formally repeals Britain’s membership of the European Union. And unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.”

Now, the Tories have retained the services of the legendary Lynton Crosby – a man famed for making dog-whistle appeals to voters’ basic instincts. I would expect this message to have been well-crafted. And the message that’s coming through is that the Tories are being opposed by everyone – Labour, Liberals, Lords – in their desire to deliver the Brexit that people have agreed on. Or to put it simply, the PM and the Tories are actually the opposition, arrayed against a set of old establishment cronies.

If that’s intentional, it’s interesting, because it links up with one of the subtler trends in the last election.

Where Tories fear to tread

There’s an established narrative that there are some seats that no opposition party will take. Labour is not about to win Saffron Walden (57.2% Con); the Tories won’t take Knowsley (78% Lab) unless something truly strange occurs. There are seats that haven’t changed hands since Labour first won them off the Liberals nearly a century ago.

If you look at those Labour certainties, though, you find a quirk. Though the Labour share of the vote didn’t change much in 2015, there was a dramatic change in what happened with two other parties – Lib Dem and UKIP.

LDUKIP

I’ve picked out a random selection – the same trend was repeated over and over. Up to 2010, the Lib Dems were the alternative to Labour across the North. The coalition years blew that apart, especially in the north where cuts hit hardest. In 2015, there was a remarkable similarity between what the Lib Dems used to get in vote share, and what UKIP picked up.

You shouldn’t run to the conclusion that these are the same people – it will be more complex. But it makes me think that there’s a ‘plague on both your houses’ vote in the north, which refuses to vote Labour or Tory, and which could be as much as 20% of the electorate in some constituencies. And these are the constituencies that the Tories have to win to get that comfortable majority.

I’d drawn the conclusion that safe northern seats stay Labour because there really is no other alternative – the Lib Dems are now toxic; UKIP are incompetent and the Tories are Tories and there the thought process stops. But what if Brexit finally breaks that mental barrier, and makes northern voters decide to overcome their parents’ prejudices? What if people now think the way to do over the system is to aid Theresa May in getting Brexit to work? And if so, what’s to say that this process stops in the north – why not Wales and Scotland too?

Fuck the system – I’m voting Tory!

If this is what the PM is trying to do, you have to admire her chutzpah. Trying to brand the Tories as the anti-establishment rebels, when they’ve managed to get 175+ seats in every election since the First Reform Act, is a bit like packaging Robert Mugabe as a respected financial consultant.

But Brexit makes strange truths. And if those people who used to vote Lib Dem, or used to vote UKIP, because it was their way of speaking out against the system suddenly find themselves represented by Tory party, that really could shake up the electoral landscape.

I ran a quick check – what happens if the Tories were able to take most of the UKIP vote (which I take as a proxy for dissatisfied voters) in every constituency? If UKIP polled no higher than 3%, and the rest all turned blue, then 58 Labour seats would go Tory. That’s before a single Labour voter changes their own vote or stays at home, to show their distaste for Corbyn. The list includes Rother Valley, where Labour has almost a 10,000 majority.

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 20.34.08

This is a bit of a statistical fiction – most of the ‘screw you’ voters are probably staying home on election day. But it makes me realise that there is the potential for quite a spectacular outcome – one where the Tories genuinely channel an unrepresented section of the electorate (like Trump), and where Labour is left flailing. The result might be more of a one-off than a grand political realignment, but it would mean that a three figure majority would easily be possible.

Theresa May Does

This morning, no work was done in Whitehall. From about 10:30 until 12:00, the day was given over to speculation, gossip and armchair psephology. Was she calling an election? What was the significance of the lectern not having the Downing Street crest? It was either that, or start tearing up our work-plans on a speculative basis.

Most people are sick of elections; not least the PM. You got the sense that she really had intended to avoid this. But ultimately, there comes a time when the open goal in front of you is impossible to ignore. Many’s the person who judged Gordon Brown on the basis that he could have gone to the country in 2007 and won, but didn’t – forever after he was Bottler Brown.

And life for Theresa May is not going to be easy. She may have no opposition, but with a majority of 14 she is at the mercy of every crank and crackpot in her own party. If the story turned against her (and it almost certainly would, given how tough Brexit will be), every assessment of her failure would end with the words ‘if only she’d called an early election…’.

This looks like an election no one can lose. But…

If you’re in the Tory Party, you’ve never had it so good. The poll leads here require Borisisms to capture their magnificence – whopping; ginormous; stonking – up to twenty percentage points according to some pollsters. It shouldn’t be possible to lose an election from a start like that – anything less than an absolute massacre would look like a failure.

But don’t get carried away. This may be a lot closer than it first appears. Let’s take a look at the seats with the smallest majorities in 2015.

majorities

It’s fair to say that Chris Matterson, Labour MP for City of Chester with a majority of 93, will be spending the campaign polishing his CV. Indeed, the Tories need to go a lot further than this list if they’re going to claim victory. But note a few quirks in this list:

  • A lot of these seats with small majorities are already Conservative. In 2015, the Tories were really good at targeting the marginal voters that matter. Winning a lot of seats means overturning a lot of majorities in the 1,000-3,500 range – definitely doable, but not simple.
  • A lot of these Labour seats are in areas that voted remain – especially London. London hasn’t followed the rules in the last few elections. Indeed, if someone wants to have a bet over whether Wes Streeting will retain Ilford North on a majority of 589, I’ll offer you good odds.
  • The blue seats aren’t all Labour-Tory marginals. Quite a few of them are Tory-Lib Dem seats, whose dramatic fall to the blues was the shock event of election night 2015. The impression is that this was a one-off, as the Tories played off the fear that a Labour-SNP coalition was in the offing unless people voted for David Cameron. This fear has probably passed by now – and detailed Tory polls apparently suggest the government could lose a lot of these seats.

My instinct says that the government starts the story down about 15-30 Lib Dem seats, and probably won’t win more than two or three seats in London no matter what. That means that they need to collect about 40-50 Labour seats in the north and midlands to come out noticeably ahead.

To put this in context, Copeland – the by-election win a few weeks ago that was seen as a huge victory for the government – was Labour’s 27th most marginal seat. To get up to 40-50 without a lot of London seats, the Tories need to win old mining towns; chunks of post-industrial cities like Stoke and Bolton and Barnsley. To me, that sounds quite hard.

It goes one of three ways…

Fortunately, we’ve been busy testing out the election mechanics that will dominate this general. In a laudable commitment to evidence-based political science, we have had three by-elections that have tested a lot of the factors that will determine the final outcome.

theresa-may-by-election-copeland-771819First, we have Copeland. The government is betting the house that this story can be repeated up and down the country. It was an area that had been Labour since 1935, but where no one could remember why. Labour fought a campaign on tested tactics – cuts and the NHS. The Tories made it all about Corbyn, and they won. Not only did they secure a big swing from Labour, but they also drew in a big share of the UKIP vote too. Do that everywhere and they’ll have their dream outcome.

votes-are-counted-in-the-richmond-park-by-electionThat’s the good news for them. The bad news is Richmond Park. Tories walk in with a majority of 23,000, and go home empty handed. This isn’t just London – this is deepest, darkest Remainia, where people happily fly EU flags outside of their houses. The Lib Dems are working to make sure it isn’t a one-off. It won’t win them a majority, but it can take a lot of seats off of the Tories (Lib-Dem-Labour marginals now being almost totally extinct).

corbynstoke-1400x788And then there’s Stoke Central. The ‘capital of Brexit’ where Labour fielded a deeply flawed candidate under an atrocious leader, and the UKIP leader still couldn’t pick up the seat. People look at this election and ask if Labour will collapse – but you could ask that question equally of UKIP. A strong UKIP would seal Labour’s defeat – instead, it looks like the party isn’t going to be able to eat into Labour’s old heartlands. That probably puts a floor on how far Labour can drop.

All of that is a lot more complexity than you usually see in a general election. So anyone who says they know the outcome is being very brave.

Stupid prediction time

What do I think? I think the government will do this. To be honest, if the government can’t pick up a seriously increased majority under this situation, when Labour is this badly broken, I think it would be a pretty awful indictment on the democratic system as a whole.

But ask me the question in betting terms, and I think the value is in predicting a hung parliament. Not because it’s likely, but because it’s more likely than you’d think. Labour can only get so battered; I don’t think it’s unbelievable that the Lib Dems could end up with 40-50 seats if luck is with them. And while my base assumption is that the UKIP vote from the last election can be convinced to back the Tories in current circumstances, I’ve never been confident of how much of the UKIP vote is ‘a plague on both your houses’ and therefore not really in play.

That’s what makes this exciting. I have no idea what will happen. Expect May to win – maybe with a majority of 20-50. More than that, she’s done well. Less than that, and she’ll look like Don Quixote on a battlebus. And all the obituaries will end ‘If only she hadn’t called an early election…’

In reply to your letter of the 29th…

The EU’s response to my earlier blog post came out on Friday. Now, if I’m honest, I don’t really speak Eurocrat. I know the difference between the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Justice, but I don’t pick up the points about e.g. when the Council is trying to stiff the Commission, or the both of them are ganging up on the Parliament. But nonetheless, like most of the European languages you learn in school, they’re mutually intelligible with a bit of gesticulation to fill in the gaps.

The things I’d take away from this are:

  • The Commission is far more concerned with orderly transition than anything else. Whereas the UK comes in talking about a grand partnership, you get the feeling that the Council is more concerned about who is going to pay for reprinting the stationary.
  • The EU is determined to figure out how the UK leaves before it is willing to talk about what the future relationship is. This is a legalistic approach, and probably forces the UK to adopt a position of hard Brexit whether we like it or not.
  • …But on the plus side, once that decision is taken in principle we can talk through what the new relationship looks like before the overall deal is resolved. So we can get this done without having to have a cliff-edge moment.
  • There are some points that matter a lot more to the EU than they do to us. There’s clearly a fear we will just ignore past obligations and walk away; there’s also a strong wish to preserve the role of the Court of Justice of the EU as the ultimate arbitrator of what this all means – which I think is a difficult thing for them to ask for. So we have more negotiating power than I’d first expected.
  • There are some things we’re agreed on – EU/UK citizens living in the other entity; and not screwing up Ireland.
  • But the big question mark under it all is, do we really believe the EU will be the sole negotiating entity? This document is written in the belief that the only substantive conversations will be the ones between team EU and the Brexit bunch. But you can see things like the last-minute addition on Gibraltar that are clearly driven by single EU members. And I can’t see Angela Merkel sitting this one out. The UK’s push on defence cooperation isn’t really relevant to the EU, but critical to member states. So where does the real balance of power lie?