Despite the consistent poll lead and projections of a majority of about 40 seats, the British Conservative party are still nervous. They are nervous because they are uncertain, because their route to victory involves taking seats that the Tories haven’t won in living memory, so no one has a proper sense of how well (or otherwise) it’s going.
The debacle of the last general election campaign has left the Tory party with a collective fear of terra incognita. At the start of that campaign, there was talk of the Conservatives sweeping through the Labour heartlands, but instead they had a lesson in how badly campaigns can go wrong. The Labour vote is resilient, and there is skepticism even among the cabinet about some of the places that the Tories are trying to take this time. ‘Only a certain number of target seats are realistic,’ warns one secretary of state.
Worse, the Tories now have no safety net. In 2010, the stubborn loyalty of Labour voters meant David Cameron fell short of a majority — but he still made it into government thanks to a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. In 2017, the Tories lost their 2015 majority but could still govern thanks to a deal with the DUP. But if the Tories don’t win outright this time, they’re gone. Isaac Levido, the Australian drafted in to run the Tory campaign, likes to tell colleagues that the Tories have a path to victory but it is ‘steep and narrow’.
On the upside, in the last few days this path has broadened out. When parliament finally voted on October 29 for an election, the Tories were still fearful of what would happen come Halloween. They were concerned about a backlash to the prime minister’s failure to deliver on his ‘do or die’ pledge to take Britain out of the EU on October 31. When I asked one key figure in the Tory campaign what kept him up at night, he replied that he worried about the Leave vote splitting as Nigel Farage and the Brexit party hammered the Tories for having failed — again — to deliver Brexit. The damage that this would do to the Tories, he fretted, would be a ‘process not an event’; it could carry on hurting the Tories long after 1 November.
Such nervousness was understandable. One poll taken in mid-October suggested that if the October 31 deadline was missed, the Tories’ poll rating would plummet to 26 percent, with the Brexit party surging to 20 percent. This would have meant certain and humiliating defeat.
But now, just two weeks on, things look much better for Boris Johnson. The Tory poll rating has gone up, rather than down. The Leave-voting public appears to blame not Boris Johnson, but a parliament that was prepared to use every trick in the book to stop Brexit from happening on that date.
This lack of a public backlash has denied the Brexit party the opening that Nigel Farage had hoped for. Rather than looking like genuine players in this election, the Faragistas now look like spoilers — a point being made to them, often in forceful terms, by their former supporters. There is immense pressure on Farage to stand his candidates down. Donors who have backed him in the past now fear that he is paving the way for a Corbyn government and no Brexit at all.
Farage has half-acceded to these requests and won’t stand candidates in any seats where the Tories won in 2017. This will help the Tories cling on in a few seats they might otherwise have lost (in north-east Scotland and the south-west of England), but Farage is still competing in those Labour-held marginals that will determine the outcome of the election. Indeed, if the Tories simply keep what they’ve got on December 12 then that’s it: no coalition partner means they will be out of office without a majority. But the real benefit to the Tories of Farage not standing in their seats is the message it sends, which will help the Tories squeeze the Brexit party vote right down.
By trying — even halfheartedly — to help Boris Johnson, Farage is conceding that the Tory leader is ‘trying to get Brexit done’. He is implicitly absolving the prime minister of blame for the fact that Brexit did not happen on October 31. He is also acknowledging that this deal is Brexit, and that the Tories aren’t trying to pull the wool over Leave voters’ eyes. This is a change from the start of the campaign, when Farage was touring the country denouncing the withdrawal agreement as a ‘gigantic con’ and accusing the government of only trying to deliver a ‘Remainers’ Brexit’. When Farage appears on TV between now and polling day, he’ll be concentrating his attacks on Labour and the Lib Dems and leaving the Tories alone. This means the Tory campaign won’t have to deal with one of the country’s best-known Eurosceptics saying that what they are offering isn’t really Brexit. By standing down in Tory seats, Farage has essentially agreed with the Tory attack line: that if you vote Brexit party you might get a Corbyn government and no Brexit. This gives the Tories the ammunition they need to target the Brexit party vote in those key Labour marginals.
Nigel Farage isn’t the only opposition party leader offering the Tories assistance. Nicola Sturgeon is doing the same. By emphasizing that she’ll use a hung parliament to secure a second independence referendum — and campaigning as if it has already been called — she is helping the Tories. In Scotland, she is reinforcing the case for unionist tactical voting. As recently as September, the Tories expected to lose 10 of their seats north of the border. Now the Tories think they can limit their losses to five and are optimistic that things might improve further between now and polling day. In England, Sturgeon’s stance makes it easier for the Tories to play up the line that anything other than a Tory majority will lead to ‘two referendums’ next year. The 2015 election showed that English voters don’t take kindly to the idea of the Scottish Nationalists holding the balance of power in a hung parliament.
The Tories’ strategic position is stronger today than when parliament acceded to Boris Johnson’s request for an election; but there’s many a slip ’twixt cup and lip. The Tory plan in this campaign is to have Boris Johnson offering an optimistic message, while cabinet ministers do the dirty work of attacking Jeremy Corbyn and his policies. But in next week’s head-to-head TV debate, the Tory leader will have to be both good cop and bad cop. The Tories were keen on these debates because it focuses minds on the premier issue: which of these two men should be in No. 10? Boris Johnson has a 23-point lead over Jeremy Corbyn on this question, widening to 30 points amongst blue-collar voters. This argument — would you really prefer Corbyn? — is often enough to pull Tory voters who have gone over to either the Liberal Democrats or the Brexit party back into the fold. However, these debates are not without risk: there’s a reason the incumbent has never agreed to one before.
Corbyn might shift the debate on to the National Health Service, Labour’s preferred battleground. He could also try to make Boris Johnson defend not just his record as prime minister, but the Tory one over the past nine years. Much of the prime minister’s appeal in Labour-held marginals is based on the idea that he is not offering more austerity; if he has to defend the ‘Tory cuts’, it could prove problematic. The debates also offer Corbyn an opportunity to present himself as the only person who can stop the Tory leader from winning. If Labour can re-unite its 2017 coalition, it can deny the Tories the majority they need.
There are still four weeks of this campaign to go, and we live in volatile times. As one senior Tory cautions, ‘odd things could trigger big shifts’. The recent flooding has been a reminder of the particular dangers of a winter election for a governing party; the manifestos could change the terms of debate. But the first week of this campaign has undoubtedly seen the chances of a Tory majority rise.