Holding the Line

When you don’t need to win a single vote

The Conservative dilemma is a strange one, to win the election they don’t need to win anymore votes than in 2017. As long as Labour gets fewer votes then the Conservatives will win an overall majority for the first time since 1992.

Recent electoral history shows that a vote share above 40% should result in a comfortable majority so long as the Opposition is at least 7 or so % points behind. If the Conservatives hold on to their 2017 electoral coalition and Labour don’t, then Boris Johnson should be returning to No 10. The big fear will be a Lib Dem collapse which pushes much of the anti Conservative vote to Labour, allowing them to hold on in a large number of seats. As happened in 2017 this will leave the Conservatives the largest party but without a majority. Much of the Conservative campaign this time round has been designed to avoid a repeat of 2017.

Safety first

Much of the Conservative election campaign has been very, well, conservative. The Party’s manifesto has been described as being “remarkable for its lack of policy proposals” by the Head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a UK based independent research institute on economics. A number of lessons from 2017 have been taken on board and the manifesto is a reflection of this. Gone are any references to Fox hunting, something which damaged the Conservatives last time round, replaced with a range of policy announcements on animal welfare are designed to protect the Conservatives on the soft and cuddly front. Also gone are any untrailed surprise announcements on the big issues. There will be no repeat of the “Dementia Tax”, indeed there are very few major announcement at all.

Instead Schools, the NHS, and the Police will all receive major cash injections. It is not coincidental that these three services are among the most popular and visible. These straightforward policies are easy to understand and geographically universal in their appeal. There is widespread agreement that these areas could do with extra finance and the Tories are hoping these spending pledges will be sufficient to keep voters from moving to support the free spending Labour. In doing so they are hoping they can do the least possible to secure a majority without placing to many restrictions on their ability to govern freely.

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Avoiding Scrutiny

Oppositions don’t win elections governments lose them goes the old adage. The Conservatives are going to great lengths to ensure this doesn’t happen. Politicians often make errors but Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comments on Grenfell were at best clumsy and ill judged, at worst patronising and cruel, have resulted in him being airbrushed from the campaign. Indeed he was the only member of the cabinet to absent from the launch of the manifesto. The sight of an Old Etonian pontificating on how to escape a burning building seems to have persuaded the Conservative Campaign that it is better that he is neither seen nor heard, something his nanny no doubt taught him as a child.

The treatment of a cabinet minister in this way is symbolic of the campaigns relationship with the press. It has largely tried to keep it at arms length. Better to try and kill a story off by refusing to engage than adding more fuel to the fire.Only engaging when forced to and often preferring to try and connect directly with voters via social media, often aping news media in its presentation. Boris Johnson in particular has been kept out of the media spotlight. He has avoided a number of the TV debates and interviews that other leaders have taken part in. In this safety first campaign it must have been calculated that stories about Mr Johnson avoiding the press a less of a problem than the potential downsides of participating in more interviews and debates. In particular, debates with all seven major parties would probably just leave him exposed as a target for all the other leaders.

The Spoiler Party

The Brexit Party doesn’t appear to have much purpose. The are stuck on single digits in the opinion polls, have pulled out of more than 300 Conservative held constituencies and are unlikely to gain a single seat. You could be forgiven for thinking them of complete non-entity in this election. However, Brexit Party votes may end up deciding this election. In leave voting seats in the North and Midlands there are many voters who support Brexit, dislike the leader of the Labour party but don’t support the Conservative party . Polls for places such as Great Grimsby have shown that the Brexit Party takes enough of these votes from the Labour party to pull them back into second behind the Conservatives. The Brexit Party draws anti Tory Pro Brexit votes away from Labour allowing the Conservatives to maintain their vote but take the seat. If this pattern is repeated on polling day then the fabled Red Wall, a string of traditionally Labour held seats across the north of England, could turn Blue and grant Boris Johnson his majority.

Eyes to big for their stomachs

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats appear to have adopted a futile and self destructive strategy. Initially buoyed by opinion polls putting them in second place they portrayed themselves as an alternative government. This led to them targeting seats all over the country with very different political cultures. Aiming to sweep aside Labour in the big cities and the Conservatives from affluent semi-rural seats many which have a majority against Brexit.

Adopting an aggressive Revoke (without a referendum) position on Brexit has proved a major miscalculation. It has scared off some remainers opposed to Brexit but worried by the idea of reversing it without another referendum and repelled traditional Lib Dem voters in leave voting areas, especially in the South West. This latter group have been left disenfranchised, they don’t normally support the Conservatives but have no other option if they want Brexit to happen; in some cases literally no option as the Brexit party is only standing in two seats in the South West.

All this trouble for a pointless measure, as the chances of a majority Lib Dem government are only slightly more likely than Pigs developing an interest in high altitude travel.

Maybot Mark II

Jo Swinson is indulging in Theresa May’s failed strategy of being the face of the party. Politicians are rarely popular and if they are its rarely for very long. It showed immense hubris for Jo Swinson to portray herself as an alternative Prime Minister. At the start of the campaign she wasn’t popular just unknown. In age of anti-establishmentism picking someone who ran for parliament aged 21 and was first elected at 25 to be the face of the campaign seemed to be a brave decision. Since the campaign has started her ratings in the opinion polls have only been trending in one direction. Theresa May faced exactly the same issue when the realities of a political campaign found her wanting. This change of fortune has not just left the Lib Dems adrift but also helped place Jo Swinson’s own seat firmly in the sights of the Scottish Nationalists who defeated her back in 2015.

The Lib Dems hoped this election would be a transformative one but confusion and poor judgement has left them a distant third in the opinion polls. It is not too late to salvage something from the campaign, things like the MRP from You Gov show that the Lib Dems are a close second in a number of seats. A tighter focus on these targets may bear fruit and give them the seats to be Kingmakers in a hung parliament. However the Lib Dems still have to walk a tight rope, persuading Labour voters to lend them their support help keep the Tories out whilst also winning over disenchanted Conservatives, angry at their party’s stance over Brexit, but who cannot stand the idea of a government led by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. To keep these two groups onside would be a lot easier with a more moderate policy and a far more popular leader.

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Events dear boy events

Macmillan’s line is an apt one for political campaigns. 2017 was an election shaped by what happened during it. May’s denied U-turn on Social Care reform made her look weak and deluded and Labour’s strong message on police cuts was given real life consequence by terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. Here was a message backed up with a story and images, it helped turn the campaign back towards Labour.

Until November 30th there had been no repeat. Labour was trying to engineer a story over the NHS being sold off by the Conservatives to the USA. Leaked documents handed out by labour supporting doctors in their scrubs at a set piece press conference stole the news agenda for the day but failed to take on a life of its own.

Friday’s attack on London Bridge, site of one of the 2017 atrocities, has acted as a sucker punch for quite a restrained and predictable campaign. Already it has led to debates on Prisoner rehabilitation and sentencing. Issues which prior to last Friday would not have registered the slightest tremor on the political Richter scale. The debate is no longer fully in the control of the political parties. Although Boris Johnson has tried to wrestle back some control over the narrative by announcing plans to strengthen sentencing for convicted terrorists. This has just led to accusations of politicising a tragedy, not least from the father of one of those murdered Jack Merritt. Meanwhile, Labour is trying to shift focus to back to police cuts as they did in 2017. How this will effect voters will only be known as we get closer to polling day, but there is still plenty of time for this tragedy to shape the direction of the campaign.

Another Blonde bombshell

With Donald Trump in the UK this week for the Nato summit Boris Johnson runs a serious risk of his carefully planned campaign going off the tracks. The US president’s unpredictability means he could say anything and if that anything sounds like the NHS being part of a trade deal then the Conservatives could be in big trouble. If they can get through the week without Mr Trump going off script over trade or engaging in another crude and unpleasant spat with London Mayor Sadiq Khan, then the Conservative Campaign team will breathe a sigh of relief.

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Howver, Trump is not Johnson’s only potentially troublesome guest. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey is unlikely to be a help to Mr Johnson. He is deeply unpopular in the UK and Mr Johnson has previously referred to President Erdoğan as a “wankerer” in vulgar yet prize winning poem back in 2016. With this personal slight and Erdoğan’s bodyguards penchant for roughing up protesters the chances of a minor diplomatic incident in the middle of an election campaign cannot be that remote.

For weirdos and anoraks only

It should not come as a surprise that the studio audience in a televised debate is stuffed full of councillors, activists and political obsessives. Quite simply who other than these people want to give up a Thursday night to sit and watch a bunch of politicians throw barbs at one another. It’s not some great conspiracy when an audience member turns out to be a member of a political party it’s just that the activist’s neighbour is quite happy to be sat on their sofa at home watching I’m a Celebrity.

There are 67 million people in the country but barely 1 million are members of political parties. This million often talk about politics in an entirely different language to the rest of the population. If an audience member starts banging on about the evils of socialism or forms of systematic oppression then they probably aren’t an accurate representation average voter. However as political weirdo, I think it is something that will continue to happen unless politics, suddenly and unexpectedly, becomes a whole lot more popular.

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