This week’s flooding has shown Johnson is vulnerable to ambush by events
As the Conservatives carry their poll lead like a Ming vase towards election day, they know the smallest misstep could spell disaster
Prime minister Boris Johnson is shown flooding during a visit to Stainforth, Doncaster. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
As Britain’s general election campaign enters its decisive phase, with the first leaders’ debate on Tuesday and manifesto launches a few days later, there is a curious unease among Conservatives.
On the face of it they have little to worry about as every poll puts them far enough ahead of Labour for Boris Johnson to return to Downing Street with a majority.
Nigel Farage’s decision to stand down Brexit Party candidates in Conservative-held seats should save some Tories in southern England who were at risk from the Liberal Democrats.
And with the Remain vote split between the Liberal Democrats and Labour, polling expert John Curtice told political journalists at Westminster this week that Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of winning a majority were close to zero.
Leave voters appear to have forgiven Johnson for missing the October 31st deadline for leaving the EU, and Farage has now joined Conservative eurosceptics in accepting the prime minister’s Brexit deal as the real thing.
And Conservative canvassers report that Tory Remainers who were tempted by the Liberal Democrats are starting to come home, partly because the risk of a no-deal Brexit is gone, but also because they fear a Corbyn government.
Tories also report that while their attacks on Corbyn in 2017 failed because they were out of date, the controversy about his handling of anti-Semitism within Labour is fresh in the minds of voters and it is cutting through.
And they believe that the media’s framing of the election as a choice between a majority Conservative government and a hung parliament favours them.
Narrow and steep
What makes the Conservatives uneasy is the knowledge that Johnson’s path back to Downing Street is narrow and steep, and that the campaign can easily be blown off course as soon as the focus moves away from Brexit.
And for four out of five days this week Brexit was not the top issue because the news was dominated by floods, the worst ever hospital performance statistics, and Labour’s policy to give everyone free, high-speed broadband.
In his memoir For the Record, David Cameron recalls how he learned in opposition about the political dangers of a tardy response to floods, so that he was on the scene in Somerset as soon as possible after flooding in 2014.
A month before Germany’s 2002 election, Gerhard Schroeder reversed his opponent’s poll lead after he responded quickly and decisively to flooding in the east of the country.
Johnson was heckled in South Yorkshire this week when he visited flooded areas, and residents complained to him about his government’s slow response to the disaster.
Throughout the flood-hit region, which includes many Labour-held seats the Tories are targeting, local TV news showed Johnson looking down and mumbling in response to the criticism.
Corbyn, who was quicker off the mark, received a warmer reception, and spoke for many in the north when he said that the government would have reacted faster if the flooding had been in Surrey.
Plunge in the polls
The danger for Johnson is that single events during campaigns can reveal politicians to voters, and the floods could become such a moment for him. Theresa May, who started the 2017 campaign as a popular prime minister, began to plunge in the polls after she reversed an unpopular manifesto commitment on social care, telling reporters that “nothing has changed”.
As the Conservatives carry their poll lead like a Ming vase towards election day, they know that the smallest misstep could spell disaster. Johnson must win an overall majority to become prime minister because there are no parties at Westminster willing to help him into power.
Corbyn’s path to power is more difficult than Johnson’s despite the fact that the Scottish National Party (SNP) and some other smaller parties are willing to support a minority Labour government.
Polls suggest that Labour could be wiped out in Scotland, and faces heavy losses in Wales. Many of the 28 seats the party won from the Conservatives two years ago are marginals, and Labour seats across the north of England and the midlands are vulnerable.
Labour hopes to move the conversation away from Brexit with radical proposals like its promise of free broadband by 2030. The plan involves nationalising part of BT, adding to Labour’s list of targets for nationalisation that include railways, water and the energy grid. And the more loudly the Conservatives denounce Labour’s plans, the more they dominate the news agenda.
Moving the focus away from Brexit helps Labour in two directions by diminishing the incentive for its pro-Brexit supporters to vote Conservative and for Remainers to drift towards the Liberal Democrats.
The Liberal Democrats have lost almost a quarter of their support in polls since the beginning of October, so they are unlikely to make a dramatic breakthrough in seat numbers. Yet they remain strong enough to hurt Labour all over England.
In the north and the midlands a stronger Liberal Democrat vote will depress Labour’s share, putting seats at risk to the Conservatives.
In London and the south a strong showing by the Liberal Democrats will help the Conservatives hold seats at risk to Labour.
Johnson must hope that the professionalism of his campaign, the clarity of his message and Corbyn’s unpopularity will keep the Conservatives ahead and carry him back to Downing Street. He has learned from May’s mistakes, and although he faces heckling almost everywhere he goes, he has not fully retreated from contact with the public.
Yet this week has shown the prime minister that he is vulnerable to ambush by events, and four weeks is a long time to keep a campaign focused on the single issue of Brexit.
He will also be aware that at this stage in the 2017 campaign, the Conservatives were eight points further ahead of Labour than they are today.