The general election that will happen on December 12 will be Britain’s fifth nationwide contest in five years. Two were national referendums and three general elections. It’s also the first December election since 1923 and the most consequential since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. In fact, some would say it’s the most important since the two world wars. Additionally, it will not only determine the character of Brexit or whether it happens at all but also whether the most radically left-wing Labour Party in history gets elected. Finally, the future of the United Kingdom itself could depend on how Scotland reacts to Brexit. All of this has huge implications for Britain and Europe, but also the rest of the world.
Boris Johnson goes into the election knowing he has failed to fulfil his promise that Britain would leave the European Union on October 31 “do or die”. That was his pledge outside Downing Street the day he took over as Prime Minister. So his gamble is -- who will the British public hold responsible for this failure? He’s hoping that the British voter will blame Parliament, and not his government. He will argue that he did everything possible, but the House of Commons repeatedly created obstructions that stalled Brexit.
Boris Johnson will also be gambling in one other sense. He must hope that the growing impatience to get “Brexit done” will be sufficient to deliver a majority to his Conservative Party because of their commitment to this cause. The problem is that the Brexit Party might be seen to have a clearer, if not also longer-standing, commitment. How many Tory voters could they lure? Would it be sufficient to deny Mr Johnson the majority he’s after?
For Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition, the election happens at a time when the polls have his Labour Party trailing 10 points behind the Conservatives. This is why a section of his shadow cabinet and several of his MPs are reluctant to face the electorate in December. They attempted “wrecking amendments” to Tuesday’s bill which paved the way for the December election, but failed to get them adopted or passed. Many of them fear Labour will lose seats “up and down the country”.
If the campaign that now gets under way becomes presidential, as is more than likely, Labour could face another problem. Jeremy Corbyn would be pitted against Boris Johnson. The Times (London) points out that the incumbent Prime Minister’s approval ratings may be negative and below those of his recent predecessors at a similar point in their prime ministership but the Labour leader’s negative ratings have “broken all polling records”. This could be made worse by the fact Boris Johnson is considered an indefatigable and popular campaigner – which his win in two mayoral contests in London and the Brexit referendum testify to – while Mr Corbyn is unconvincing and unimpressive at the stumps.
In these circumstances, what is Boris Johnson’s likely strategy? He knows he could be squeezed between the Brexit party on his right and the Liberal Democrats on his left. Most analysts believe he will attempt to invade Labour’s Brexit territory. The greater the number of Labour-held constituencies which voted for Brexit that the Tories can win, the bigger the majority they could hope for.
If, in addition, Mr Johnson can strike a deal with Nigel Farage’s Brexit party not to field candidates in winnable Tory seats that would help him concentrate on his Labour attack. But that’s only likely if Mr Farage comes to the conclusion a convincing Tory victory is the best guarantee of Brexit and is willing to sacrifice his party’s interests to this end.
Labour’s hopes, on the other hand, lie in what the British are calling “Remainia”. Here the Tories will be on the backfoot. Nearly 40 Tory seats voted to remain or only marginally voted to leave. These could be in danger. The only thing is -- will their voters still see Jeremy Corbyn as the best way of avoiding Brexit? Or might they now prefer the Liberal Democrats? If they do, Labour could lose some of its most loyal constituencies just as the Tories are successfully appealing to Brexit voters in Labour strongholds in the Midlands and the north.
A lot depends on the manifesto commitments both parties make. In 2017 Labour promised to scrap university tuition fees, which appealed to young voters. They are believed to have voted for it en masse. In contrast, the Tories proposed a social care policy, nicknamed the dementia tax, which tripped them up. Their seats -- but intriguingly not their vote share -- shrank. Will Mr Corbyn offering much the same again prove attractive? Or, this time, can Boris Johnson pull beguiling promises out of his hat?
On top of all of this there’s the Scottish question. Almost certainly Brexit will trigger another referendum. The question is how will the majority in Scotland vote? Most of those in favour of the Union tend to be Tory voters. In 2017, the Conservatives won 13 seats, their best performance since 1983. If they lose most of those to the Scottish Nationalist Party, they will also strengthen the demand for another referendum. If it happens, many Scottish voters might opt for independence in the belief this could be a way of getting back into the EU.
Now, recent British elections have been notoriously difficult to predict. Two of the last three resulted in a hung Parliament. In 2015, David Cameron just about squeaked back home. In 2017, Theresa May began with a huge lead in the polls but lost her majority to a resurgent Labour Party. Anything can happen this time around.
Which is why Boris Johnson cannot ignore history’s ominous warning. It was a Tory Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, who called the last December election in 1923. He went into it with a majority that could have lasted for four more years. He came out of it without one and, within weeks, a national government was sworn in with Labour’s Ramsay MacDonald at its head. Could something similar happen again?