In the last 24-hours all the talk has been of Boris Johnson’s carefully orchestrated election gamble being at risk of not paying off, with the prospect of a hung parliament seemingly growing as polling day draws near. In this article, we consider why this has happened and look forward to what it could mean for Friday.
Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party have remained ahead in the polls since the election was called in October. Their lead in poll of polls has been a near constant 9 to 10 per cent over the Labour Party since October 31st. Despite this, confidence in a Conservative majority is faltering and the odds of no overall control have shortened from 3/1 to 12/5.
Conservative success hinges on winning over voters in Wales, the Midlands and the North that have not traditionally voted for the party, while retaining its traditional southern base. Initially thought a tall order, the Conservatives have been able to tap into fatigue within the electorate and build a coalition that reaches beyond just the most committed leave voters to those that want the Brexit debate over. Polling from mid-November showed 67 per cent of voters that backed remain in 2016 and the Conservatives in 2017 intend to vote for the party again. Alongside this, the party leads among voters that back no deal (76 per cent), the Prime Minister’s deal (83 per cent) and Soft Brexit (56 per cent).
Where the party was once at risk of alienating voters that feared a hard or risky Brexit, the Prime Minister has pivoted from ‘Parliament versus the people’ to an election fought on enough being enough, best typified by Boris Johnson’s emotional and exacerbated remarks in his Brexit, Actually broadcast. It speaks to an electorate beyond the Westminster bubble that wants Brexit to be over. The strategy adopted has also minimised the impact of the electorate’s growing prioritisation of healthcare as the key issue in this election, with Johnson’s Conservatives able to relegate it to a priority that will be focused on after Brexit is done.
With the Conservatives on course to win in places like Bassetlaw and Cheltenham – two seats never won by the same party in an election – one could see why election success for Johnson’s Conservatives seems the most likely outcome. However, the very reasons the party has this commanding lead is also the reason the party’s success is not guaranteed.
The hopes of radically altering the electoral map and the voter coalition of the Conservative Party is a tall order when voters have entrenched political loyalties. Whilst Brexit has tested this to its limits, with voters now more associated with their Brexit leaning than political parties, by attempting to win support from a wide range of voters the Conservatives risks alienating some of them. Dominic Raab is witnessing first-hand what it can mean when a devoted hard Brexiteer faces a concerted challenge in his traditionally safe, remain supporting constituency.
The Conservatives do not lack ambition though. YouGov’s MRP predicts the party will only retake 6 of the 33 seats it lost in 2017 and means its road to Number 10 Downing Street needs to be paved with constituencies that until recently have had large majorities against the Conservatives. Where traditionally parties would seek to recover old swing seats, the Conservatives have taken a different tact that requires it winning new ground in places like Wrexham, Stoke-on-Trent and Sedgefield. Yet fortune does not always favour the brave, with YouGov now predicting around 85 seats have an implied majority of just 5 per cent. Such small margins mean the result could still be anywhere between a hung Parliament and a Conservative majority of nearly 60.
What is worse for Boris Johnson is the seats still in play are not uniform. There are narrow margins in seats from Scottish marginals to left behind northern towns, and urban centres to the rural shires, that the party will have to win. If any one of these backfires on him, Johnson’s careful balancing act could be judged a failed strategic gamble.
In the first week of December, 13 per cent of voters were reported to have not made up their mind, with 19 per cent of them women. This is a risk for Johnson particular, given his poor polling with women compared to other parties. Additionally, a recent Ipsos Mori poll suggested 40 per cent of voters might still change their mind between then and polling day. It means that with so many seats still in play the party is right to fear that this election may be even closer than some polling or modelling (which excludes ‘don’t knows’) predict.
Where final days of election campaigns have typically focused on one group of voters in key regions, Johnson is still fighting battles across the country. Continuing to focus on voter frustration is an added risk due to renewed scrutiny of the government’s domestic agenda over the last year, typified by the recent Leeds hospital debacle. Whether voters truly believe the Conservatives will bring change after it has overseen a challenging decade in many of the communities it wants to win over remains an open question.
The Conservatives are walking a tightrope. If Johnson can achieve this, it will mark him out for his ability to do what other Conservatives have been unable to. All eyes will be on the exit poll but with so much scope for close local results it may not be until the morning until we really know whether the Prime Minister has achieved his latest act of political triumph.
Boris Johnson’s political future is finely poised. Come the morning of the 13th December he could easily emerge ready for the beginning of the next Conservative era or witness his legislative plans slipping through his fingers.
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