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Boris Johnson Is Hoping Voters Have a One-Track Mind

Boris Johnson Is Hoping Voters Have a One-Track Mind

Tuesday, 5 November, 2019 - 09:15

The Dec. 12 UK election will be hugely consequential. An outright victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives would all but guarantee the ratification of the Brexit deal. Any other result would likely force the Tories from office, even if they were the largest party, due to the lack of potential coalition partners.

Given the political context, the electoral flux, and the challenges in measuring (let alone forecasting) public opinion in the UK, the outcome remains highly uncertain. The last few weeks have resolved some of the many complications, I wrote about recently in making predictions, but they have also introduced new ones.

Two complications seem to have been lessened significantly. First, by unexpectedly reaching a Brexit deal with the European Union, Johnson has both shifted the debate away from a possible no-deal Brexit and wrong-footed Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which may now decide not to put forward candidates in most districts.

Second, the number of incumbent MPs likely to stand as independent candidates -- potentially creating very unpredictable races -- is now much lower, after a number of them decided not to run again, with several on the Conservative side being readmitted to the party by Johnson. That also reduces some of the uncertainty for Conservatives.

But in other ways, the picture has become more complicated. The Oct. 31 Brexit deadline that Johnson repeatedly talked up has now been missed. It’s clear from new polls that Leave voters are unhappy about this, but it’s less clear what effect that might have on the election, because many of Johnson’s target voters don’t seem to blame him for it.

It also means that, for the first time in 96 years, British voters will be dragged to the polls in December. This may seem unremarkable to those in the U.S., used to voting in November, and in some cases in far lower temperatures than might be expected in the temperate UK. But British voters normally cast their ballot between April and June, and have not been asked to do so at any other time of year for a major nationwide vote since 1974.

What effect might that have on turnout? No one knows for certain. Some of the highest UK election turnouts of all time were recorded in winter elections in the last century, but those were different times too. Research has shown that it may still make some voters likelier to stay home.

Comparisons to the 2017 general election are understandable, but the parallels are far from exact. Then Theresa May – with a bigger lead in the polls than Boris Johnson currently enjoys – called an early election to try to capitalize on her opponent’s depressed poll standing, only to win narrowly and without an overall majority of seats.

Some things are certainly similar: Once again, a prime minister is seeking a Brexit mandate from a weary electorate, when not strictly needing to do so, while leading handily in the polls. Events (such as a much-predicted winter crisis in the National Health Service) could intervene to hurt Johnson’s lead too. But there are plenty of differences to 2017 beyond the obvious one that Johnson is likely to be a much better campaigner who won two elections in Labour-dominated London. The 2017 election was almost completely unexpected. This one has been discussed for weeks, and since many voters will have been aware of the possibility, their recent responses to pollsters may have reflected that.

May’s poll lead – though very large – was in retrospect somewhat soft. Undecided voters at the time the 2017 election was called were about two times more likely to have voted Labour in 2015 than Conservative, and many returned to the fold. In 2019, Labour’s advantage on this measure is smaller. Labour’s strategy of courting voters on both sides of the Brexit divide also worked very well in 2017, when the campaign moved onto other issues. But it could be vulnerable in a campaign dominated by Brexit.

This election likely hinges on whether the Conservatives can keep the pro-Brexit vote more united than the anti-Brexit vote. That, in turn, may depend on the salience of Brexit during the campaign. Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats, who would cancel Brexit in the highly unlikely event they were victorious, are a threat to Labour’s recent dominance among younger voters and college graduates.

British voters desperately want to talk about something other than Brexit. But whether or not they vote on something other than Brexit may well hold the key to this election.


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