At the very end of Theresa May’s premiership, a certain sobriety started to finally creep into Westminster punditry. Some started to reflect a little on past assumptions made about what the EU would and would not do at long last. Some even went as far as googling what the Irish backstop might be. With the arrival of Boris Johnson into Number 10, all of that has gone out the window and the amount of bollocks being spewed is even greater than what was witnessed at the height of May’s popularity, pre-2017 general election.
Here are the main things I keep reading that are wrong:
- A proper Lib Dem electoral revival is bad for Labour, good for the Tories
This is lazy thinking at its very worst. It’s seeing voters as two semi-equal pools, one marked “Right” the other marked “Left”, and thinking that the Lib Dems coming back into play will just suck up water from the Left pool, leaving the Right one all to Johnson. This is so psephologically soft-headed, I can’t believe that this seems to be the basis of the electoral strategy being adopted by both major parties. In truth, while it is possible that Lib Dem-Labour could votes fall in a manner that directly helps the Tories, this is unlikely. If the Conservatives run a general election campaign before Brexit happens on a no deal platform, that will put a lot of Tory-Lib marginals into play for the Lib Dems. And I’m talking, at least a 100 seats, if the Lib Dems current polling situation doesn’t collapse (and if it does, this whole discussion about a Lib Dem revival is moot anyhow). Think about how many people who have voted Tory in these seats will gift the Lib Dems a vote as a one-off to avoid no deal. Polling suggests a lot of them. The Lib Dems have the structure in these seats to compete, which isn’t being considered enough by pundits.
Again, very bad psephology at play here in this assumption. For a start, it didn’t work in 2017, so why should it work now? Many Tories will jump in here with “May was crap; we’ve got Johnson this time”. Except, Theresa May was actually much better situated to appeal to these voters than Johnson. The daughter of a vicar who went to a grammar school (as opposed to a man born in America who went to Eton), she also ran on a socially conservative, fiscally left-wing for the Tories platform. A lot of people in these seats who voted Tory last time when it was May will not even consider voting for Johnson. It’s a much easier thing for Labour to run against and they will do so effectively in these seats. Which means that almost no constituencies are realistically available here, except by luck in a handful of places.
While we’re here, can I take a moment to trash the “Johnson reaches voters other Tories can’t” myth? Forget about the fact that he’s become a no deal Brexiteer since leaving the London mayor’s office – even back in 2008 and 2012, this was a massive exaggeration. Look, I have something unpleasant to confess: I voted for Johnson in both 2008 and 2012. Not as a first preference, but given my first preference in each case had a 0% chance of winning and I was well aware of that, I effectively voted for Boris Johnson. Why? Not because I thought Johnson was some brilliant liberal who was going to change London in all sorts of ways for the better, but because it was either him or a Hitler-obsessed, Castro brothers apologist, Venezuelan regime supporting prick. It was a least bad option sort of a deal. I’m certain a lot of Londoners made the same negative choice for Johnson.
And to those who jump in here with “Aha! Got you! The next general election will be a choice between Johnson and another awful communist prick!”, my riposte is: no, it won’t be. We’re in four party politics terrain now, and there really are more choices available. Jo Swinson could be prime minister. If you are derisively laughing now, recall that her party is in second place in a lot of polls, just behind the Tories. Even if she managed to get the party 100 seats, the party couldn’t be ignored and there would probably be a quick re-alignment in parliament, particularly as it would be clear at that the stage that the only alternative was a no deal Brexit.
3. But Boris Johnson isn’t going to run on a no deal platform. He’s going to run instead on a “Tell Brussels where to stick it” one
If Johnson does this, he will lose the election, almost guaranteed (I say almost, partly because we live in mad times, partly because the unforced errors of other parties might still be enough to see Johnson back to Number 10). Running on this platform will weaken the Lib Dems messaging in Tory-Lib marginals and help the Conservatives keep a few more of these seats than if they ran on a clear no deal ticket. Yet this puts Farage and the Brexit Party back into contention in a major way. Farage can say Johnson is breaking promises and dicking around, which will work since that is precisely what Johnson will be be doing. Yes, of course this can be negated by the Tories coming to some arrangement with Farage, who might be stupid enough to fall for it. Given past behaviour, this is unlikely.
In conclusion: Boris Johnson can win a general election. Of course, he can – almost anything is possible in this current age of British politics. It’s just not nearly as likely as most of Westminster is telling you.