The Irish Times view on the UK election: an open contest

Boris Johnson is counting on voters in Leave constituencies prioritising Brexit over domestic policy concerns

Although he enjoys poor ratings in opinion polls, UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has more routes to power than the Conservatives under Boris Johnson. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Although he enjoys poor ratings in opinion polls, UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has more routes to power than the Conservatives under Boris Johnson. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

 

If the normal rules of politics applied, the Conservative party would be bracing for a resounding defeat in the British general election on December 12th. This is a party that called a Brexit referendum in 2016 having given no serious thought to the consequences of a vote to leave.

It stumbled chaotically through the exit negotiations with the EU, showing an astonishing lack of strategic ability – or even, at times, basic understanding of the issues – and only managed to coalesce around a common position after it had suffered an implosion and forced out some of its most capable MPs.

It has been so thoroughly captured by its radical fringe that one of its most prominent spokespeople is Jacob Rees-Mogg. Despite all of this, and having presided over a decade of austerity, the Conservatives enjoy a solid seven-point lead over the Labour Party with five weeks to go until polling day.

Resignations and enforced departures among Conservative MPs have thinned its ranks of front-rank politicians

That’s partly a judgment on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is even less popular than he was in 2017. But it also reflects confusion over Labour’s own Brexit position along with the competition it faces for remain voters from the Liberal Democrats and the SNP. If the election were to be held today, Boris Johnson would win a majority.

But the election is far more open than that would imply. In recent election campaigns, the gap between the two largest parties has tended to narrow while smaller outfits have been squeezed. That should benefit Labour. Resignations and enforced departures among Conservative MPs have thinned its ranks of front-rank politicians, and that could show during the campaign. Of most concern to Johnson, however, will be the fact that Corbyn has more routes to power. Having broken with the DUP over the EU exit deal, Johnson cannot hope to win the unionist party’s support without abandoning his signature election policy. Johnson’s list of potential coalition partners ends there. Labour, in contrast, can count on the SNP and the Lib Dems to support, or at least tolerate, an anti-Tory government.

If he is to win a majority, Johnson must win dozens of Labour-held seats in leave-voting constituencies

The policy debate could also work to Labour’s advantage. Its 2017 manifesto was more popular than the Tories’, and while Johnson hopes to neutralise some of Labour’s advantages with promises of large-scale spending in areas such as health and education, those pledges will sound insincere to voters who have known only cutbacks for a decade. And for the Tories to build a campaign around the idea of competence, after the past three years, would surely invite ridicule.

If he is to win a majority, Johnson must win dozens of Labour-held seats in leave-voting constituencies in the north of England, the Midlands and Wales. In other words, he is counting on Labour voters in those areas prioritising Brexit above public services and other domestic policy concerns. Is he right? The election will turn on the answer to that question.

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