Boris Johnson has succeeded, finally, in getting Parliament to give him the general election that he wants. The polls have him far ahead: YouGov had 36% of voters backing his Conservatives, with Labour in second place on 23%. But his move is still a risky one. Here are the ways it could go wrong.
Remember the 2015 UK election shock? And the 2016 Brexit referendum shock? And the 2017 UK election shock? A common feature of all of them was a failure of the polling companies to properly detect a shift in public opinion.
At the very time that we want faster, better data from them, pollsters face unprecedented challenges. In particular, they struggle to reach younger, more mobile voters, those who might be expected to oppose Johnson’s Conservatives and Brexit.
Votes vs Seats
Even if the pollsters get close with the total vote share, translating it into the thing that matters, seats in Parliament, is very hard. Votes can pile up unevenly. In 2017, the Tories won 42% of the vote, but 49% of the seats. Labour won 40% of both.
The Conservatives have now been in power for nine years, and even Cabinet ministers acknowledge privately that the last three of those years haven’t been a great advertisement for Tory government. The party’s recent discovery of unity behind Johnson might not outweigh years of infighting and indecision.
It’s not just that the Tories have been in power for a long time, they’ve been in power for a long time while people haven’t got any richer. According to the Office for National Statistics, median weekly earnings are still 2.9% below their 2008 level. That’s not a great backdrop for an election.
Johnson’s slogan, “Get Brexit Done,” feels like an appealing message to a public weary of months of knife-edge votes and reverses. But it’s also an admission that this government has had a single project since 2016, has failed to deliver on it, and everyone is sick of waiting.
Johnson hopes to turn that frustration into votes for Conservatives. But voters could conclude that Brexit was a Conservative project — a Johnson project, in fact — and that if they’re tired of it, they need someone different in charge.
The failure to complete the UK’s withdrawal from the EU also leaves the door open to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party to take votes away from the Tories. If Farage does well enough to stop Tories winning key seats, Corbyn could ultimately benefit.
Johnson’s other message is that by getting Brexit dealt with, he will be able to focus on spending money on things people do like, such as schools and hospitals. This too is an admission of failure.
After nine years of spending restrictions, Britain’s public services are squeezed: libraries are closing, knife crime is rising, numbers of rough sleepers are increasing. Labour will be very happy to fight an election on the question of who is better at spending money on things.
The Conservatives are pinning a lot of their hopes on Johnson’s undoubted fame. Unlike his predecessor Theresa May, he enjoys campaigning. But that fame brings a problem. Most people have made up their minds what they think of Johnson, and a lot of them don’t like him.
According to YouGov, 47% of people have a negative opinion of him, against 33% who have a positive one. Labour is pushing hard on Johnson’s tendency to go back on promises.
The Conservatives, too, plan to make much of their opponent’s character: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has even worse scores than Johnson: 58% negative, against 23% positive. But at the last election, Corbyn was able to shrug off criticism of his past statements.
Johnson risks losing a whole load of Conservative seats in places that don’t like Brexit too: southern England, and Scotland. According to Joe Twyman of Deltapoll, that leaves the prime minister trying to pull off a difficult trick.
“He needs to convince Remain-leaning Conservative voters to forget Brexit and vote Conservative,’ Twyman said. ‘At the same time convince Leave-leaning Labour voters to hold their noses about him and vote for Brexit.”
Right Votes, Wrong Places
A different version of the same problem is that the Conservatives’ strongly pro-Brexit message helps them do very well in areas they already hold. According to Twyman, of the 50 most “Leave” areas, 24 are already Conservative. Extra votes there don’t help.
Conservative politicians are fond of saying that they’ll never run a campaign as bad as the one May ran in 2017. In particular they point to her announcement of a plan to fund care for the elderly from the value of their houses.
But things can go wrong. The 2017 campaign was interrupted by terrorist attacks. Johnson could find himself unexpectedly tested. He may be just about the only politician known to everyone by his first name, but he’s also the only one to have had to apologize to an entire city — Liverpool, in 2004.
His team have been keen to keep him away from difficult questions. In the intense scrutiny of an election campaign, that will be harder than ever.