In this election there’s a lot going on but not a lot actually happening. You see it in the politics, where this week the biggest arguments have been about where parties *shouldn’t* stand. You see it in the policy, where the parties seem set on contesting this vote with spending commitments so big that many economists wonder whether it would even be possible for Government to spend the sums promised, let alone to raise them. So much noise, plenty of signal, a strange and fundamental feeling of unreality.
Let’s start with the politics. Nigel Farage’s decision to pull his candidates in Tory-held seats but not in Lab-Con marginals is – on the face of it – a confused one. After all, it is the Leave vote that the Brexit Party may split in competitive seats that really worries Johnson’s chances of winning a majority. Holding on to the seats he has is the bare minimum for the Prime Minister and Farage’s move does not immediately help him to overcome the real hurdle – breaking through in those Labour-held Leave seats which failed to succumb to Theresa May’s charms. At the same time, the move begs a big question about what Farage’s attitude to Boris’ deal actually is. If it is ‘not Brexit’ and ‘worse than Remaining’ – as Farage has claimed – then why offer safe passage to *any* Tory backers of the deal?
But that is all (or mostly) just noise. The signal is a substantive surrender. By making this apparently small concession, Farage has conceded that Boris’ deal is in fact Brexit and that the Brexit Party is not – after all – the singular political vehicle for departing the EU. Farage has given his supporters in *all* seats permission to vote Tory. He has kept just enough of his political machine in tact to be able to cause trouble and generate headlines but has told true-believers that Boris is their best bet. It would have been better for the Tories if Farage had stood down everywhere but that is not in his nature. He has delivered second best for them, he has de facto endorsed the Conservative Party and its vision of Brexit. That will matter – even in seats where he is still, nominally, running candidates. Already support for the Brexit Party has halved in the polls, it may yet be further squeezed.
The difficulties of tactical arrangements in a first past the post world were mirrored this week in the ‘Remain alliance’. The big problem with this new grouping in British (well, English and Welsh) politics is that it does not include the biggest party promising a path to the thing that it says it wants; Remain. Lib Dem, Green and Plaid strategists may well argue that Labour is not a ‘Remain Party’ because it has not yet fixed on a position for the second referendum that Corbyn is promising. But this puritanical approach hinders the opportunity to reshape individual electoral battles in favour of Remain candidates. It is this tension that has seen Lib Dem candidates unilaterally stand down in seats like Canterbury and High Peak for fear of splitting the Remain vote against strong-Remain Labour MPs (in both seats the Lib Dems have imposed new candidates from the centre). The tension is also seen in seats like Stroud, where the alliance has given Green MEP Molly Scott Cato a clear run – risking a Remain split between her and David Drew with the consequence of a pro-Brexit Tory being elected in a Remain inclined seat. While Leave looks to be coalescing and consolidating behind Johnson, Remain is still fractured and fraught: This will have consequences on Election Day.
And now, to the policy. For reasons that follow naturally from the above, Labour is exceptionally keen to move the air war from Brexit to… well, to anything else. We await all the main parties’ manifestos but in the meantime Labour have been pre-announcing a series of blockbuster initiatives designed to grab attention and distract from Europe. Today’s – the nationalisation of BT Openreach and the provision of universal free broadband – is a classic of the genre. It comes with an eye watering price tag that helps dominate the headlines – attracting positive write-ups from sympathetic outlets and equally attention-generating outrage over the cost. Whether it is deliverable in the timeframe suggested, legal on the lines proposed or the best use of billions is by-the-by. Think of it a bit like Trump’s border wall (without the racism). It is a giant, unsubtle but effective signal to potential supporters. And for Labour strategists, if all it does is refocus the campaign on to domestic, bread and butter issues for just a couple of days then it is worth every promised penny.
The Conservative Party, meanwhile, is actively dodging any real policy at all. Cash, sure – there’s plenty according to Sajid ‘loadsa money’ Javid. More for police officers, more for the NHS, more for soldiers. If you are employed by the state and wear a uniform of any kind, the Tory Party is promising you better pay and/or more resources. But that isn’t policy. That isn’t a plan. That is just cash. And that is deliberate – they don’t want to get bogged down in discussions around reform at home. They want to reassure that they’ll spend, spend, spend and then get back to talking about Brexit.
So that is the picture at the end of week two. Lots of noise. A bit of signal. Little else. So far nothing has significantly cut through with the effect of changing the polling trends, except for Farage’s white flag. So beneath all the hullabaloo this week was a win for the Tories where it matters – in squeezing the vote to their right. Labour will be hoping that a weekend discussing free broadband will help to offset that advantage. But Brexit does seem – at this early stage – to be holding out as the decisive question of this election in a way it failed to in 2017. If that holds, it is bad news for Corbyn and for Labour.