Johnson set for large majority as ‘Trump alliance’ forms
Nigel Farage announced on Monday that he will not be fielding Brexit Party candidates in any of the 300-plus constituencies the ruling Conservatives won at the last UK election. The move could provide a fillip to Boris Johnson’s party and a critical question is now whether Labour can engineer a dramatic mid-campaign turnaround in the polls, as it did in 2017.
The scale of the Tory lead in opinion surveys is indicated by the Electoral Calculus (EC) website. Based on a poll of polls from Nov. 1 to Nov. 9, it asserts there is almost a 70 percent chance that the Conservative Party will be able to form only its second majority government since the early 1990s. Indeed, EC indicates that the Tories are on course for a majority of more than 100 seats, rivaling Margaret Thatcher’s triple-figure majorities of 1983 and 1987.
It is in this context that Farage announced, in a major U-turn, that he will not seek to challenge the Conservatives in seats that were won by the ruling party in 2017. This change of mind has been criticized by opposition parties as the advent of a “Trump alliance,” suggesting that a secret hard-Brexit pact may have been struck between Johnson and Farage, both of whom are admired by the US president.
The net impact of Farage’s decision is unclear. It may enable the Tories to retain more of the seats it currently holds that are Labour targets, such as Blackpool North and Cleveleys. However, the Brexit Party’s decision to run candidates in other seats could prevent the Conservatives from winning a number of seats held by Labour, such as Stoke-on-Trent Central, as the vote could now be split in three main directions, with many pollsters asserting that Farage’s party takes more votes off the Conservatives than it does Labour.
Farage is justifying his decision, which injects further uncertainty into the race, on the basis that he wants Johnson to win an outright majority and avoid another Brexit referendum, which is being called for by Labour. Amid reports that Farage has been offered a seat in the House of Lords by the Tories, he also claims that he extracted a big concession from Johnson with the latter’s pledge to get the UK out of the EU by the end of 2020, and to pursue a hard exit in the form a Canada-style free trade deal.
Monday’s Brexit Party news followed swiftly on the heels of the announcement last week that several of the most implacably pro-EU parties — the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru — have agreed a pact not to stand against each other in 60 seats in England and Wales to try to avoid splitting the Remain vote. The goal is to give pro-EU voters just one choice in seats in southern England, Wales, and key seats in London.
Farage is justifying his decision on the basis that he wants Johnson to win an outright majority and avoid another Brexit referendum
The decisions of both the Leave and Remain sides to pursue these electoral arrangements are likely to increase the prospects of tactical voting on polling day, adding to the already unprecedented postwar UK voter volatility right now. In this fluid environment, traditional partisan voting patterns are eroding fast, with nearly half the country voting for different parties across the three elections from 2010 to 17.
While the net impact of Farage’s decision remains uncertain, Johnson will hope it will play into his election game plan, which is to try to frame the election as much as possible around Brexit. The prime minister believes this represents his best opportunity to win an electoral mandate; although the strategy is not without risks, as opposition parties try to morph Johnson into Farage and a hard Brexit alliance first suggested by Trump. While this will appeal to many right-of-center voters, it may dissuade Leave voters who traditionally support Labour from voting for Johnson, given the Trump association.
Amid this turbulent landscape, and with less than a month until polling day, the key outstanding question is whether the Tories have a “lock” on this election; or, alternatively, if their lead could unravel once again. Like Theresa May in 2017, Johnson could yet make a series of big gaffes under pressure. While he appears to be a significantly more natural campaigner, he is untested in the intensity of a general election campaign.
The other way in which Labour could again upset the polls is if the framing of the ballot moves decisively away from Brexit to a wider prism of issues, such as the economy, the National Health Service, and/or law and order. Should this happen, Johnson will not be able to fight on his chosen terrain.
The reason why Labour would like the campaign to focus on this wider agenda is the backstory of significant public sector cuts that have taken place since the international financial crisis. On the law and order agenda, the party has campaigned for the re-creation of about 20,000 police officer positions that were cut back over the last decade.
Taken overall, the Dec. 12 UK election is still not straightforward to forecast, despite Johnson’s significant polling lead. While surveys indicate the Conservatives look most likely to emerge as the largest single party, the volatility of the electorate means that a range of outcomes, from a majority government to another hung parliament, remain plausible.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics