• Monday, Dec 09, 2019
  • Last Update : 01:18 am

Back to square one

  • Published at 12:57 am November 16th, 2019
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Houses of Parliament in London Bigstock

By announcing what he termed a “unilateral withdrawal” of Brexit party candidates from standing in the 317 seats won two years ago by the Conservatives, Farage effectively endorsed Boris Johnson and created a de facto Brexit alliance

In seven attempts to enter the House of Commons, Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, has never been elected as an MP himself.

Even so, just by dint of December 12 being framed as a Brexit election, his influence is significant. On November 11, one month before the polls, he dramatically increased his impact.

By announcing what he termed a “unilateral withdrawal” of Brexit party candidates from standing in the 317 seats won two years ago by the Conservatives, Farage effectively endorsed Boris Johnson and created a de facto Brexit alliance. 

He has since made some semantic caveats, and both men have left past condemnations of each other hanging in the air, but the messaging seems clear. (Besides, neither leader is known for their consistency.)

While the possibility of his party splitting the anticipated pro-Brexit vote in Labour-held seats raises doubts about Farage’s strategy, there was an instant fillip for Boris Johnson, with one new poll suggesting that the Conservatives have a 14-point lead over Labour.

Until Farage’s announcement, the second week wasn’t looking helpful for any side. 

Last weekend saw several parties seeing candidates forced to withdraw after being caught out making variously racist and otherwise unacceptable comments on social media. But as few people had heard of those involved and public engagement is still limited, it didn’t set the election alight. 

Even Farage’s announcement may not do this; that will probably have to wait till after the first TV debate next week. But he does seem to have reset the election to Boris Johnsons preferred starting position as a champion of Leave voters.  

Four observations from the week so far:

1.    All parties are trying to soak up airtime via constant drip feeding and road testing of policy announcements. (Instead of starting with completed manifestos)

2.    The Conservative strategy of focusing everything on Brexit means that it is adopting “as much as it can eat” of popular policies from other parties.

•    Notably 2017’s tough Tory stance on public expenditure has been replaced by promises of an end to austerity and more funding for the NHS. This is could well neutralise the popularity of Labours spending plans, though it risks also legitimising them.

3.    Neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn had a great week, but the prime ministers would have been worse, were it not for Farage’s announcement. 

•    Johnson lagged behind Corbyn in articulating concern for flood victims in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire and looked uncomfortable when heckled on visits to affected areas.

•    Like 2017, Labour has some popular policies, but its messaging to date has been weaker than last time. 

4.    The Lib Dems need to review.

•    As yet, there is no dividend for the Lib Dems from declaring itself the leading Remain party. It’s only pact so far with the Green and Plaid Cymru parties impacts on at most 60 seats. Closer co-operation with Labour may be in both parties’ interests, despite leader Jo Swnson’s tough anti-Corbyn stance.

Battlegrounds and parties

At the last general election in June 2017, turnout was just under 69% of the electorate.

•    Westminster’s 650 constituencies elect MPs on a First Past The Post (FPTP) basis, apart from the 18 seats in Northern Ireland, which use a proportional representation system

•    Single Transferable Vote is also used in all elections to the European Parliament and various UK mayoral, London Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections

•    FPTP  favours the top two parties nationally 

•    The SNP’s vote was entirely in Scotland’s 59 constituencies, while the Lib Dem vote share was spread nationwide, hence the bigger 2017 total in seats made the Scottish National Party the UK’s third largest party at Westminster

Swings and polls

Over the last half century of general elections, the Conservative and Labour parties can, as a rough starting point, count on the sympathies of one-third of the electorate each, and the Liberal Democrats on between one-sixth and one-fifth of voters. 

•    A 40% vote share is normally enough for one of the top two parties to gain a comfortable majority. The 2017 result was unexpected because the top two parties got similar voting shares on a fair turnout and Northern Irish parties had to come into play to support Theresa May’s minority government

•    The Conservative party only needs a net gain of 9 seats to gain a majority. With Labour currently below par, the Conservatives seem well ahead

•    On current polls the Labour party would need an improbably large swing to catch up, without a large amount of tactical voting by supporters of other anti-Conservative parties.

Pre-election projections suggest that the Conservatives could win a strong majority on 35% of the vote if Labour and Lib Dems split 50% between them

•    A new poll after the Brexit party agreed not to stand against the Conservatives in Tory held seats, gives the government a 14-point lead

•    The rolling average of polls currently gives the Conservatives a 10-point lead on 39% of voters over Labour at 29%, Lib Dems on 16% and Brexit Party on 8%

Battlegrounds

•    Leave heartlands in parts of Northern England and the Midlands are the areas where the Conservatives plan to pick up the most seats at Labour’s expense

•    Scotland was a saving grace for Theresa May in 2017 as the popular but now retired Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson secured 13 seats. At least half of these are now vulnerable to the SNP

•    Likewise, a strong Remain alliance in London is expected to see several Conservative seats fall to the Lib Dems and Labour and increases the total the Tories need to gain

•    Overall there is enough uncertainty for the two most predicted outcomes to be either a big (even 100 seat) Conservative majority, or another, but different hung parliament

Leaders debates on television

Televised debates between leaders of political parties are not an integral feature of UK elections the way Presidential debates are in the United States. The main reasons for this are:

1.    Received opinion is that PMQs (Prime ministers’ questions) in the House of Commons gives adequate and frequent (if predictable) opportunities for the prime minister and the leader of the opposition to face off against each other. As neither wants more unpredictable exposure than necessary, they normally do not deign to appear on routine episodes of the BBC’s weekly “Question Time,” or “Any Questions?” shows

2.    Rival broadcasters may talk tough to convince prime ministers to participate in televised election debates, but they can’t make them. In 2017, Theresa May sent her Home Secretary Amber Rudd to appear on a leadership Q and A, less than 48 hours after Rudd’s father had died

3.    Despite a proliferation of leadership debates and audience Q and A’s in the past decade, the thing most people remember best about them including Amber Rudd, is that in 2010, Gordon Brown and David Cameron both said “I agree with Nick (Clegg)”

Notwithstanding the above, there is now a presumption that prime ministers will take part in some form of televised debate.

At the time of writing, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party have both launched legal action against ITV’s plan to hold a head to head between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn on November 19. Given that Conservatives and Labour won 82% of the last election’s votes, it is unlikely that this plan contravenes required standards of balance.

In a winter election where canvassing may be reduced and more people are likely to be watching television, televised debates could potentially take on more significance.

The prospective timetable of debates involving party leaders is currently:

•    Tuesday, Nov 19: Boris Johnson v Jeremy Corbyn head to head in London, ITV

•    Friday, Nov 22: Two hours, seven party leaders podium debate in Cardiff, BBC

•    Friday, Dec 6: Boris Johnson v Jeremy Corbyn BBC Prime ministerial debate in Southampton

During this period, the BBC is also planning to include party leaders in a special episode of its Question Time format  and will be hosting additional debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland featuring the main parties in each country.