That the UK is about to embark on a midwinter election tells us everything about the state of British politics. Not since 1923 has an election taken place in December. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had little choice, lacking a majority and unable to force his EU withdrawal bill through Parliament. This is a huge gamble and it is not clear whether he or Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will be the one enjoying their yuletide festivities in 10 Downing Street.
This may be the fourth national electoral exercise in five years, but arguably it could be the most significant in decades. The outcome could determine if Britain stays in the EU or not, and on what terms. Two hugely contrasting political futures await Britain, depending on who wins: A hard-right Conservative-led government or a hard-left Labour one, with little to offer from the center. The outcome may also determine just how much of the UK remains. Determining what will happen will be little more than an educated guessing game for even the most talented psephologists and pundits, as this will be an election unlike any other.
As it stands in the opinion polls, the Tories are hovering around the 40 percent mark, Labour on 24 percent and the Liberal Democrats on about 20 percent. Labour contends that replicates 2017, when Corbyn lay 20 points behind Theresa May at the start of the campaign before dramatically closing in. However, two years ago, May led one of the most inept, faltering and colorless political campaigns in living memory; not something Boris Johnson will be guilty of. Corbyn has hardly hit the heights since then, having the lowest personal polling of any opposition leader since 1977.
The contrast in personalities could not be more acute. Johnson oozes charisma but also a sense of entitlement from the privileged elite. He is witty and intelligent but gaffe-prone and widely accused of being cavalier with the truth. Corbyn is a better campaigner and protest leader but lacks his opponent’s easy touch.
In policy terms, Labour has a huge Achilles’ heel — a massive target for others to aim at. Simply put, its position on the central, No. 1 issue of the entire election is all over the shop. A vote for Labour on Brexit is akin to “don’t know.” The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are clear in their opposing viewpoints, the former to leave with the new withdrawal deal, the latter to remain in the EU. The Brexit Party would ditch the deal and just leave, thereby attracting visceral opponents of the EU. The Labour leadership objects to the deal but has no clear-cut alternative. The suspicion is still strong that Jeremy Corbyn is a “Leaver.”
How, therefore, can Labour win this election if it can neither appeal to its significant “Remainer” base nor convince Labour leave voters, largely in northeast England, that it will deliver Brexit? Its hopes rest on other parties inadvertently coming to its rescue, not least the far-right Brexit Party eating away at the Conservative vote.
For Labour, the trick will be to shift the debate on to anything but Brexit. If it can do this, it might stand a chance of narrowing its deficit in the polls. If Europe was not an issue, it would have a considerable chance of making inroads. The public is concerned at the state of the health service, education, the rise in knife crime and the environment. In contrast to May in 2017, Johnson has countered this with a raft of spending pledges to diminish Labour’s appeal.
The challenge for Johnson is that, if the Tories do not win a majority, they have few potential partners for a coalition, unlike Labour.
The Conservative Party has issues too. A spate of moderate remain-supporting, one nation Tory MPs have opted not to stand again — an alarming indication of the direction the party is traveling. Is it the broad church it once was? Johnson is moving away from Europe and ever closer to the arms of Donald Trump. The American president even called in to a British radio show to express his support for the PM. Yet pollsshow Trump is far from popular in the UK, so Labour will milk this for every vote, not least stoking the fears that the National Health Service will be effectively sold off in pieces to major US health firms.
The Tory shift to the right means that the Liberal Democrats have lured many to their benches. If the Liberal Democrats can maximize airtime during the six-week election period, they could erode both the Tory and the Labour vote.
The Conservatives could face a wipeout in Scotland, with all 13 of its current seats at risk. The Scottish National Party (SNP) is polling well and is demanding a second referendum not just on Europe but also on Scottish independence. The SNP may well find itself in a postelection coalition with Labour. The challenge for Johnson is that, if the Tories do not win a majority, they have few potential partners for a coalition, unlike Labour.
As dramatic as all this is, an outright Labour majority is unlikely. Johnson may be the only leader with a serious chance of carrying that off, but do not be surprised if the end result is yet another hung, divided and highly rebellious Parliament. But, who knows, the infamous British weather could be the joker in the pack that freezes turnout and delivers the strangest of results.