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“Everyday is like Christmas Day.” So said Ann Coulter in reference to President Trump’s election, but I have been feeling like this since June 23, 2016. Since then we have had a return of grown-up government with proper Cabinet accountability, despite only adequate ability, while a slim majority has ensured they had to respect public opinion. Consequently in key areas such as Brexit or tax policy, the government has been making — or has been forced to make — all the right moves. In the larger world, Mr. Trump’s election means we would not be caught between the Scylla of Hillary Clinton and the Charybdis of the European Union. So why do I now feel like Coulter after she learned 59 Tomahawks had just hit Sharyat airbase?
British Prime Minister Theresa May has called a snap general election in the expectation of winning an electoral landslide. All the ministers and backbench MPs I respect are fully committed. The British Labour Party, by some estimates, is facing its worst showing since before the War. Some commentators have speculated the Tory majority could be 140 seats, Conservative HQ has more modestly suggested 50, while informed opinion has plumped for around 80. As a Conservative who has been making similar predictions for about a year, I should be jumping for joy; logging on to donate and rearranging my diary for the next six weeks campaigning. But those predictions were for an election in 2020, once the referendum was a distant memory and we had actually completed Brexit, and after five years of Jeremy Corbyn remaking Labour in his own Trotskyite image.
Conservatives may have a tendency to see the doom in everything and I readily admit to rather liking the tenuous grip Mrs May has on power. Without her own ‘personal mandate’ she is bound to the Brexit vote that delivered her the Premiership, while the Cabinet keeps her more interventionist tendencies in check. However, it is not the coming May autocracy I fear, or even that she will soften from the Clean Brexit she has promised, it is the lack of any authority this election promises to provide.
Mrs May has made a colossal error of judgement. She may be looking at a consistent poll lead of 20% but that does not translate geographically into the election landslide everyone is forecasting. The Conservative party won in 2015 because the Labour vote collapsed in Scotland and the Liberal Democrats were reduced to a rump. UKIP may have garnered four million votes but they were spread out across England and Wales. Mrs May is banking on those ‘kippers coming back into the Tory fold and making big inroads into the Labour heartlands in the Midlands and the North. Tory strategists even dream of taking a dozen seats in Scotland to puncture Nicola Sturgeon’s inflated ego… They may well gain a few seats north of the border as the only real unionist party, but do not expect the tectonic plates to shift again so soon. In Wales too there is also a chance of Tory gains, but again only a handful. It is in England that the battle will be fought and to understand old Blighty you have to understand the class system. That is the “New Class“, not the one you see in Downton Abbey.
The class we are referring to make up perhaps a quarter to a third of the populace and are a key swing vote. They consider themselves to be the intelligentsia: Thomas Sowell’s “anointed”. They work in academia, for multi-nationals (both corporate and non-profit), in media and for the state (often indirectly). From 1997-2005 they were for Tony Blair and New Labour, or the Liberal Democrats. After 2008 they were open to David Cameron and the Conservatives. For this class the Brexit vote was a shock to the core. It fundamentally challenged their assumptions about the country and the people in it. To them it does not matter what was said before or after the referendum (unless it can be weaponised of course), or what (mainly positive) economic news is presented; the country is going to hell in a hand basket and they are certainly not going to vote for it.
So of all those Conservative gains from the Lib-Dems at the last election, only the Brexit voting South-west will remain Tory blue. That is Cornish and Devonian fishermen and do not make up many seats. Those parts of ‘the west country’ that were blue before 2015 will stay blue, but the previously yellow seats – think of Glastonbury in Somerset and towns like Bath – will be returning to the Liberals. While the Conservatives will gain some Midland seats, those areas of the North that aren’t already blue still have a generational loathing of the Tories. Metropolitan and some suburban seats will either remain Labour or switch to the Liberals. University towns and some of their neighbouring constituencies too, that includes some Tory heartlands in Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire.
This is not unknown at the top, the Richmond Park By-election (very affluent, lots of media and film industry types) showed the phenomenon. Offsetting this was the win in the Copeland By-election. Clearly the temptation of all those Brexit voting Labour seats was enough to gamble with previous electoral gains. But it is a bet largely predicated on the Labour vote in England collapsing as it did after the Scottish referendum of 2014, while the Conservative base is bolstered by former UKIP voters. It also bets heavily against Labour tribalism and ignores the fact that many ‘kippers are already in Conservative seats – even the “Brexit capital of Britain“, Stoke-on-Trent, recently remained with Labour.
Of course there is the Corbyn factor. If Ed Miliband was unelectable two years ago, why would anyone think his far left successor is? But Mr Corbyn therefore has a very low bar, underestimating him and his energised base got him elected to the leadership in the first place. He doesn’t have to win, just hold on enough. One must also consider that the real opposition will be led by that very embodiment of the New Class: the BBC. They certainly do not consider their impartiality to extend to Brexit, Mrs May’s one winning issue. The Prime Minster herself has never shown much campaign zeal and while she has recently proven herself to be a formidable politician, those more Machiavellian skills are not what you want to advertise. Her speeches are only really interesting because she so rarely says anything. When she has, on anything other than Brexit, it has not always been to the liking of even the Tory faithful, as her spring conference showed (note the lack of any applause from the 8-9.40 minute segment of this speech). This is potentially Mrs May’s undoing. Her support base in the media is based on the three legs of The Sun (most popular tabloid), The Daily Telegraph (most popular broadsheet), and The Daily Mail (most popular mid-market). While all are bound by Brexit, perhaps only the Mail will support her broader programme; The Sun‘s (print edition) headline on Saturday read “No No No Mrs May” after Friday’s campaign announcements on tax and spending priorities, expect the free-market Telegraph to follow suit once the manifesto is published. Add voter fatigue to a poor prospectus and the widely held assumption that only one side can win and you have a potentially disastrous campaign. With all the real enthusiasm on the other side, you almost have last year’s referendum in reverse.
This is not a prediction for a Tory loss or a hung Parliament. Even a so-called progressive alliance of Labour with the Scottish Nationalists, the Lib-Dems and the Greens would not be enough to form a majority, given Labour are as likely to lose seats to those last two as the Conservatives. But if the intention of this election was to provide a large majority for stability at home with authority at the negotiating table abroad, what will it say of Mrs May if she only has a net gain of a handful of seats? How will it be stable at home if My Corbyn beats expectations and emboldens the hard left into more strikes? Will it be stable to have the beaten Remainers resurgent around the rejuvenated Liberal Democrats? Or if Mrs Sturgeon has a new mandate for a second Scottish independence referendum? How authoritative will Mrs May look if this snap election bites her back?
I hope I am wrong. I hope that a government led Brexit referendum (2.0) delivers the win I always thought it would. But Mrs May has gambled much more than many realise. The tragedy will be that had she waited, the boundary changes of 2018 would have taken away much of Labour’s inbuilt advantage. The two year negotiating period with all the ridiculous European demands would have brought the country together, while the scars of last year’s Brexit vote would have healed. Indeed, they were healing. Meddling May might have just ripped them open again.