There was an elegiac quality to exchanges in the House of Commons this week as MPs paid tribute to Speaker John Bercow, who has left after 10 years in the chair, and to colleagues who will not be contesting next month's general election. Dozens of MPs have announced they are leaving parliament, some of them because the abuse they receive as MPs, both online and in person, has become intolerable.
Others are facing into the election with little confidence of success, and one MP in a marginal seat spent much of last week shaking colleagues’ hands and telling them “it was nice knowing you”. The British Election Study reported last month an unprecedented level of churn among voters, half of whom voted for different parties in 2010, 2015 and 2017.
Boris Johnson's Conservatives go into the election with a lead over Labour of anything between eight and 15 points, according to different polls. But Theresa May enjoyed a bigger lead over Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 before she lost her majority following a calamitous campaign.
Either we're leaving on the terms Johnson negotiated, or we're heading for a second referendum in which we might cancel the whole bloody thing after all
John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and Britain's leading election expert, points out that Johnson has a narrower path to victory than Corbyn, because he must win a majority to become prime minister.
“What we have to bear in mind is that the Tories don’t have any friends in the House of Commons and therefore basically it’s a binary election. Either Boris wins or he loses. Or you might say, either Boris does or he dies,” Curtice says.
“Because basically the betting is that if the Tories get anything much less than 326, given that the DUP are uncertain and the DUP may lose some seats anyway, that he’s not going to be able to sustain a minority administration.”
Labour has 244 seats in the current parliament, compared with the Conservatives’ 298, the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) 35 and the Liberal Democrats’ 20. Even if Labour fails to overtake the Conservatives as the largest party, Corbyn could still become prime minister with the help of other opposition parties.
“The Liberal Democrats and the SNP will basically say, can we please have a second EU referendum – possibly on a faster timetable and not necessarily the one that Corbyn would prefer,” Curtice says.
“This election probably will resolve Brexit – not guaranteed but probably. Either we’re leaving on the terms that Johnson has negotiated, or we’re heading for a second referendum in which we might decide to cancel the whole bloody thing after all.”
Labour wants to move the conversation away from Brexit and its sometimes confusing policy of renegotiating the withdrawal agreement and putting it to a referendum – in which a Labour government could campaign against its own deal. Corbyn has had a successful start to the campaign, seizing on a Channel 4 Dispatches report on secret meetings between British trade officials and US pharmaceutical companies as evidence that Johnson wants to put the NHS on the table in a trade deal with Donald Trump.
“Despite his denials, the NHS is up for grabs by US corporations in a one-sided Trump trade sell-out,” Corbyn said. “We will stop them. Labour won’t let Donald Trump get his hands on our National Health Service. It’s not for sale, to him or anyone.”
The problem this time is that Labour want to talk about something else. But the Tories want to talk about Brexit
Trump gave the Labour leader an unexpected boost on Thursday evening when he denounced him during an interview with Nigel Farage on LBC radio.
“I’d like to see you and Boris get together because you would really have some numbers because you did fantastically in the last election. He respects you a lot I can tell you that. I don’t know if you know that or not,” Trump told Farage.
“Corbyn would be so bad for your country, he’d be so bad, he’d take you in such a bad way. He’d take you into such bad places.”
Corbyn won the first two days of the unofficial campaign by turning a story about Brexit into one about the NHS and the Conservative threat to it. But Curtice warns that the Labour leader will not be able to move the campaign off the issue of Brexit for long.
“The problem this time is that Labour, sure, want to talk about something else. But the Tories want to talk about Brexit. The Liberal Democrats, who are credible players once more, want to talk about Brexit. If the Brexit Party decides to take part, they want to talk about Brexit. So moving the agenda elsewhere will be more difficult because three of your opponents will be quite happy to carry on talking about Brexit. And that’s different than in 2017 because the Liberal Democrats were not credible. This is a more crowded field,” he says.
The crowded nature of that field complicates the calculations of each of the political parties. The Conservatives are braced for losses to the SNP in Scotland and the Liberal Democrats in the south of England. But they hope that gains in the midlands and the north of England, where they are targeting Labour-held seats that backed Brexit in 2016, will more than make up for the losses.
The Conservatives’ success in such target seats could depend as much on the performance of the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party as on how many former Labour voters they win over themselves. Curtice says the outcome of the election will hinge on which of the main parties lose the fewest votes and where they lose them.
“The Tories are actually defending a high watermark in some of these seats. The reason why the seats are marginal, even though in some cases they’ve been Labour since the year dot, is because the Tories did very well in these areas in 2017. They didn’t do well enough to win these seats but they did do well enough to begin to breathe down Labour’s neck. We can’t necessarily assume that the Tories are going to make dramatic further inroads,” he says.
“But then we have to remember that maybe they don’t need to do so. Because at the end of the day, this is a race between two losers. It’s a question of who loses most.
1. Conservative majority
If Boris Johnson returns at the head of a majority government, he will push what he calls his "oven-ready" Brexit deal through Westminster and take Britain out of the EU on January 31st. The new intake of Conservative MPs will be top-heavy with hardline Brexiteers, who will favour a loose trading relationship with the EU. If Johnson does not request an extension of the standstill transition period by next June, Britain risks leaving that transition with no trade deal with the EU in December 2020.
2. Conservative minority government
If Johnson is a few votes short of a majority, the only parties he could turn to for support are the Brexit Party (if they win any seats) and the DUP. Both would demand a steep price. The DUP could not support a Conservative government without a promise to reopen the withdrawal agreement arrangements that would keep Northern Ireland aligned with the EU for customs and goods regulations. And Nigel Farage would demand that Johnson rules out any extension to the transition period, so that Britain would start trading with the EU on a bare-bones, WTO rules basis from the end of next year.
3. Labour majority
A majority Labour government would renegotiate Johnson's Brexit deal to commit Britain to a closer relationship with the EU, remaining in the customs union and closely aligned with the single market. The new deal would be put to the people in a second referendum within six months, with the other option on the ballot paper being to remain in the EU. Labour's primary focus would be on pursuing its radical economic agenda that would see a sweeping transfer of power and wealth from businesses to workers, renationalise utilities, increase public spending and strengthen the rights of tenants in the private sector.
4. Labour minority government
If neither Johnson nor Corbyn wins a majority, the Labour leader has a better chance of forming a government because he could form alliances with the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and others. The price of the SNP's support would be two referendums: one on Brexit and another on Scottish independence. The Liberal Democrats, who are warier of Corbyn, would demand a Brexit referendum on an accelerated timetable and could agree to co-operate with the new government only on a case-by-case basis.
5. Liberal Democrat majority
Despite the Liberal Democrats' election literature presenting leader Jo Swinson as a potential prime minister, it would take an unprecedented electoral earthquake to take the party from 20 seats to an overall majority. If it does happen, the Liberal Democrats would simply cancel Brexit by revoking Britain's article 50 notification of its intention to leave the EU.
6. Brexit Party majority
A no-deal Brexit now.