Few tasks are more daunting than writing an election forecast which won’t appear in print until after the result; so let’s see how I go…
The opinion polls, and many pundits, failed to foresee David Cameron winning a majority in 2015, the Brexit referendum result in 2016 and Jeremy Corbyn’s strong showing in the 2017 election. Polling agency Yougov has made big efforts to make amends with new methodology. It’s hard to dismiss its 27 November poll, based on an amazing 100,000 interviews. While it showed one in six voters still undecided, it had the Tories on 43 per cent, 11 per cent ahead of Labour and forecast they’d win 359 seats and a 68-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons. Most gains would come from Labour in its Midlands, Northern and Welsh heartlands. Earlier fears a Tory majority would be thwarted by losses to the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists and the Brexit Party splitting the conservative vote weren’t supported.
More recent polls point to a lower Tory majority between 40 and 14. But no polls show Johnson falling short. These findings are underpinned by Corbyn’s woeful personal ratings. On preferred prime minister, Johnson leads 41 per cent to 26 per cent – a deterioration for Corbyn since 2017, when he level-pegged with Theresa May at 39 per cent. Corbyn’s net disapproval has ranged from minus 30 per cent to minus 60 per cent, vastly worse than Johnson’s. Is all this reliable? Probably yes, for three reasons.
Firstly, Corbyn has been a gift to the Conservatives. The most extreme leftist ever to lead a major political party in an English-speaking country, his instinct has always been to side with Britain’s and the wider West’s enemies – the IRA, Putin, Iran, Hamas, Hizbollah. His hostility to Israel has left him blind to rampant anti-Semitism in Labour, which unprecedentedly has resulted in the Chief Rabbi saying Corbyn is unfit for high office. And after the latest terrorist outrage by a fanatic released early from prison, Johnson was in tune with most people saying the law must change so terrorists serve their full sentences. Corbyn predictably took a softer view. Not only Conservatives but many traditional Labour supporters worry deeply about Corbyn’s judgment on matters of national security. Many of Corbyn’s hugely expensive election sweeteners – such as four-day weeks with no reduced wages – are obviously popular. But he’s struggled to persuade voters they’re credible. And his claims that only the rich would be hit with higher taxes to pay for them have turned out to be false. Corbyn has eroded his credibility further with absurd claims such as Johnson planning to sell the National Health Service to the US.
Secondly, 29 per cent of Labour’s supporters voted for Brexit. Many are bitterly disappointed that Labour has capitulated to its urban pro-Remain supporters with its fence-sitting position which would likely see the referendum result overturned if Corbyn won. So tribal loyalties seem to be crumbling as Labour’s pro-Brexit supporters prove fertile territory for the Tories in Labour’s heartlands. The Tories’ cause has been helped by high-profile Labour figures including Tony Blair who’ve also described Corbyn as unfit to be prime minister.
Johnson has become the Brexit prime minister in a way Theresa May never did. While parliament’s Remain majority forced him to break his ‘do or die’ promise to leave the EU on 31 October, few would question his determination to achieve Brexit as soon as possible. Nigel Farage has accepted the overriding importance of not derailing Brexit, hence his decision not to field Brexit Party candidates in Tory-held seats and to soft-peddle his criticism of Johnson’s deal with the EU.
Thirdly, several commentators have judged that the Eton and Oxford-educated Johnson doesn’t play well outside England’s south. But it looks like he’s defying the sceptics. Johnson’s strong support for Brexit and tough language on law and order go down well among Labour’s traditional blue-collar supporters. His promise of an ‘Australian-style points-based immigration system’ probably also helps, even if Johnson isn’t offering a commitment to the substantially lower immigration many of them would like. Johnson’s informality and ability to make people laugh go down well in contrast to the widespread dislike of his earnest, Marxist opponent outside metropolitan Guardian-reading territory.
Johnson has so far survived several potential landmines. Trump’s presence at the NATO summit in London came and went without creating headlines helpful to Labour. Corbyn failed to land any blows on Johnson at their final debate. And Johnson has been consistently disciplined, good-humoured and on-message, also skilfully encouraging a perception that his would be the first Johnson government, not a fourth Tory government – and so unconnected with the previous nine years of austerity and the wet, pro-Remain end of the Tory establishment which was in charge. The stakes couldn’t be higher. If Johnson falls short of a majority, Labour is better placed to form a government coalition. Many will remain sceptical that Labour’s blue-collar heartlands are set to give Johnson his majority. And what could still go wrong for Johnson? The opinion polls might be wrong yet again. The small margins by which the Tories seem to be ahead in many seats could evaporate if Labour improves by a few points in the final days. And voter perceptions that the Tories are still in front could reduce turnout.
Still, especially given Corbyn’s deep unpopularity and his inept handling of Brexit, by the time you read this Johnson will almost certainly have secured his majority to remain prime minister.
Mark Higgie is the Spectator Australia’s Europe Correspondent. Due to production deadlines, he submitted this article prior to the election.
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