When you’ve been in government for nine years, and are pursuing perhaps the most divisive policy that the country has seen for several decades, how can you win a majority? Particularly when your flagship policy – leaving the EU – is opposed by many of voters in your historic heartlands in southern England. That’s the strategic challenge that the Conservative Party faces at the start of the 2019 General Election.
Much has been made of the Conservative Party’s need to win seats across swathes of the Midlands and the North of England where there was a significant vote for Leave at the 2016 referendum. Some of these seats are long-time marginals, but many are seats which would traditionally have been way out of the grasps of the Conservative Party. It is only the Brexit vote and a perception that the Labour Party no longer culturally reflects the values of these voters that has opened up this opportunity.
Yet it is also the same strategy as Theresa May pursued in 2017. She made limited progress by winning only a handful of seats in this vein – places like Walsall, North East Derbyshire and Stoke South. Johnson needs to hope that somehow he can win over these voters more effectively.
The characterisation of these types of voters as the ‘Workington Man’ by the centre-right think tank Onward has been dismissed as a cheap stereotype, but as with all stereotypes there is a kernel of truth in it. To connect with these voters – largely white, Leave voters who increasingly feel economically and culturally left behind – the Conservative campaign needs to focus on delivering Brexit, investing in public services and infrastructure, and showing how the party will reduce the cost of living. Fundamentally the Conservative Party need to position this election as being about delivering Brexit to win these voters and seats.
Yet this is where the party’s strategic dilemma becomes clearer. The party’s traditional heartlands across southern England contain large numbers of Remain voters increasingly disappointed by the Conservative Party’s policy direction, particularly on Brexit. The Liberal Democrats are providing a potential electoral challenge in many of these seats, where they traditionally had little or no presence. Constituency polling undertaken by Survation this week suggested that the Liberal Democrats were ahead in South Cambridgeshire, only four points behind in John Redwood’s Wokingham seat and nine points behind in Dominic Raab’s Esher and Walton constituency. These are true blue seats: a wave of yellow sweeping across the suburbs and commuter belt of London could have a significant impact on Johnson’s ability to re-enter Downing Street.
The Conservative Party cannot offer these voters what they want on Brexit: instead it must hope for two things. Firstly, that these voters are so fed up of continuing uncertainty and political debate over Brexit that Johnson’s commitment to ‘Get it done’ is more important to them than a desire to re-run the referendum, and secondly that they are more fearful about the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister than the prospect of Brexit happening.
To secure a stable majority the Conservative Party needs to maintain its dominance across the south of England while making substantial progress in the north. The challenge that the party faces is that as it moves to appeal more strongly to one element of its electoral coalition it risks alienating the other. The more the Tories highlight the action they will take to deliver Brexit to appeal to those in Stoke, the more Remainers in Cheltenham will question whether the party reflects their interests. The more the party defends the market economy and the ability for people to become billionaires to preserve their support in Esher, the more people in Wrexham may ask if they share their values. Can you both promise significant public spending while keeping on board those who want fiscal credibility and are worried that a larger state means higher taxes for them?
The Conservative campaign launch this week reflects these mixed messages. Johnson used the preview in the Telegraph of his campaign launch speech in Birmingham to highlight the risks of Corbyn as Prime Minister, in an appeal to middle England. But making a full throttled defence of capitalism in the Telegraph and comparing a Corbyn government with Stalin’s attacks on Russian farmers is unlikely to resonate with the voters of Bolsover, Bassetlaw and Bishop Auckland who Johnson needs to convince. Instead the passion from the Prime Minister’s Birmingham rally on Wednesday evening when he set out his vision to ‘get Brexit done’ is what needs to come across to these voters.
The party will need to walk a careful balance over the next five weeks. The strategy is clear, and while high risk – and essentially unsuccessful in 2017 – seems like the only way to achieve a stable Conservative majority. The question is whether it can work in reality and whether this fragile electoral coalition can be kept in one piece with a series of careful policy trade-offs. How the Conservative Party execute their campaign will have a big impact on this. Fundamentally, the next five weeks will define the answer to this conundrum: can the Tories win over both Workington Man and Wokingham Woman?