Some observers have been thinking that the forthcoming British election on 12 December would be about a lot more than just Brexit. Some of the issues polling supports this view. And the party leaders have certainly been leading off with their plans for the radiant future.
And yet – new data from the doyen of British polling, Professor John Curtice, brings us crashing back to the existential question.
His research suggests that while there are plenty of other issues, Brexit is catalysing changes in political identity.
For example, the polling shows that less than 20% of those who voted ‘Remain’ in the 2016 Brexit referendum currently support the Conservative party. Labour – with a have-it-both-ways policy – would get 42%, while the parties which favour revocation of the referendum vote, namely the Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists and Greens, take 39%.
On the other side, the Conservatives would scoop up 58% of the 2016 ‘Leave’ voters, with the Brexit party scoring a sizeable 20%. Labour manages a miserly 13%.
During the 2017 election, Labour said it would honour the referendum vote but suggested it wasn’t terribly keen. This equivocation got enough support from both ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ supporters who disliked then-PM Theresa May’s Conservative government to give them 40% of the vote.
So Labour is giving ambiguity a second run. It promises to renegotiate Boris’s deal with the EU within six months (implausible given all the EU has said) and then put it to a second referendum. But this time round it might be having the opposite effect, as ‘Remain’ voters drift to the Liberal Democrats and ‘Leavers’ to the Brexit and Conservative parties.
There are some new problems as well. The battle over anti-semitism in the Labour ranks has reached an extraordinary pitch, with the normally-staid Jewish Chronicle publishing a front page editorial addressed to Britain’s gentiles, which opens with:
“The vast majority of British Jews consider Jeremy Corbyn to be an anti-semite”
Some MPs have already left the party. Others, for various reasons, are not standing again, including the Deputy Leader Tom Watson who stepped down as the campaign began. The party looks more extreme and divided than in 2017.
To cap it all, former Labour MP Ian Austin even said:
“So it has really come to something when I tell decent, traditional patriotic Labour voters that they should be voting for Boris Johnson at this election.”
The test will be whether Labour’s package of big spending and ‘woke’ policy can achieve anything like the purchase it managed in 2017 particularly with younger voters.
And this time round, the Conservatives are less shy about bidding for support with taxpayers’ money. While not reaching Labour’s levels of profligacy, they propose to raise spending to levels not seen for many years, including a pledge to raise infrastructure spending from 1.8% to 3% of GDP.
Plain sailing for Boris then? Not so fast. His vulnerability might be – Brexit.
Surely not you say. He negotiated a deal with the EU and now can make a compelling argument that he needs the tools to finish the job. His credentials are so solid, he was able to reject an electoral pact with the Brexit party. The party’s leader, Nigel Farage, under pressure not to thwart Brexit, has been bumped into saying he will not stand any candidates in Conservative-held seats.
But at the same time, you can also argue that Boris is a touch complacent and tacking too vigorously to the centre, with his own big spending plans and gimmicks like a ban on fracking.
There is even debate on whether the Conservative manifesto should include the option of no-deal in the planned EU free trade negotiations. Really? What have they not learned from the last three years of negotiating without a decent Plan B.
The underlying identities seem to be solidifying in Boris’s favour, but this still feels like a fluid election. There could be some more entertaining interactions between Boris and Nigel over the next four weeks.