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…’

Advertisements

The biggest news of the past week?

I’ll admit, that if you’re going to come and claim something as the biggest political news of the past week, you’ve got a bit of competition. But I have a sneaking suspicion that, with hindsight, the decision of Nigel Farage to step down as UKIP leader (properly, this time) could end up as the most important.

As predictions go, this may sound a little eccentric; and you may require a little convincing to make you think me borderline sane.

For a long time now, UKIP has been the dog that didn’t bark of British politics. Set aside the Leave vote for a moment (where UKIP were treated as a hindrance more than an asset); for twenty years, UKIP has been a party banging its head against a brick wall. At the last general election they managed to pick up almost 13% of the vote, but lost half of their seats. For years, people have predicted UKIP as a major force in the future of British politics, but time after time it fails to turn up.

This is a double puzzle to me. First off, people are fed up with politics. That seems to be a general consensus that Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems are all led by besuited Oxbridge graduates who get into public life with the intention of fiddling their expenses. Setting aside the fact that UKIP MEPs mostly are suit-wearing ex-bankers who treat their expense accounts like an EU-funded research programme into cutting edge accountancy fraud, the fact is that they successfully sell themselves as representatives of ordinary people. If you want to protest against the system, they’re ready and waiting for you.

Second, if you share my belief that the politics of the 21st century is likely to be as much about the case for or against globalisation, UKIP are the only party able to stand firmly on the side of stopping the multinational whirl. For people who experience globalisation as unemployment and marginalisation, UKIP should be the natural party that they vote for.

So why has the story of UKIP been one of such failure? Well, I think it’s obvious…

UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage reacts during a media interview outside the Marquis of Granby, Westminster in central London
Useless.

Nigel Farage is a lousy politician. I don’t say that just because he’s widely loathed by the chattering classes – indeed this was in some ways his greatest/only political asset. But he is outright dreadful at the things that politicians need to be good at if they are to build a serious political party.

  • He was no good at political tactics. When he ran for Parliament in 2010, he thought the best thing he could do to engage with the voters in the final hours of the campaign was fly a plane 10,000 feet above their heads.
  • He’s equally poor at strategy, having no sense of prioritising key seats or important areas. UKIP’s successes, such as Rotherham or Heywood and Middleton, tend to be locally led.
  • He can’t build a coalition – he’s managed to trigger parliamentary rebellions in a party with only one MP; and the party’s national executive is about as fissiparous as a debating society made out of student poets.

His one strength has been getting the TV cameras to look at Nigel Farage; and he’s never seemed to wonder whether there’s anything more to UKIP’s success than that.

As a result, UKIP has never built a party capable of winning in the British political system. It hasn’t even needed tactical voting to keep them out – as the losses at the last election in Thanet South and Castle Point, where the Tory and Labour votes were dead-split, went to show. Instead, they flutter round the margins in proportional representation systems like the Welsh Assembly elections, which are purposefully designed to make sure that all have prizes.

All of which has obscured the fact that UKIP is standing in front of the biggest open goal in British politics. There are seats in the north of England that have voted for Labour every election since the General Strike. They have continued doing this, particularly over the past twenty years, even as the party has become more and more in the sway of metropolitan leftist cliques. Blair, Miliband and now Corbyn have only served to make that alienation worse. The only thing lower than their turnout is their Guardian readership; and last month they voted heavily in favour of Leave.

Right now, there isn’t really an opposition party in England’s northern cities. The Lib Dems were close to becoming one, taking control of serious councils and some hard industrial seats like Redcar. All that disappeared when Clegg signed up for the coalition, and (in net terms) UKIP picked up the voters. With a bit of focused effort, there are a great many seats that could be terribly vulnerable.

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 12.10.13.png
Second-place parties in the core Northern cities, 2015 General Election. Hard-pressed areas like Sheffield, Rotherham and East Manchester are already turning purple.

This may sound far-fetched. Labour still gets more than 50% of the vote in many of its northern constituencies. But the same was true in many Scottish seats as recently as 2010 – and all but one of them turned SNP-yellow on election night. That all took place on the back of a referendum where many thousands of voters suddenly rethought their traditional allegiance, and wondered whether their interests were best served by continuing voting the way their great-grandparents had.

When Red Clydeside switched to the SNP, the Labour Party arguably lost the chance of ever being in majority government again. If UKIP pulls the same trick in Tyneside, in Yorkshire and in Lancs, then the Labour Party is as dead as the Liberals of Lloyd George. This fact isn’t lost on Labour – this is why the efforts to remove Corbyn are as fierce and universal as they are.

There have long been plenty of push factors to stop people voting Labour in these areas. But a new UKIP leader might, for the first time, figure out a way to pull them in.

And if that happens, then we have a real revolution on our hands – a genuine populist, anti-establishment political party, as troubling to the status quo as Labour was a century and a half before. Compared to that, the choice of the next Prime Minister is a trivial thing.