We could have called this week’s note ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’. Or, perhaps, ‘pride and prejudice’. But, honestly, they felt a bit on the nose. Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to apologise for his party’s antisemitism crisis – and the foot dragging over disciplining those who caused it – has been a cause of frustration and shame for many Labour activists. It has further outraged and frightened many British Jews. And it was just one terrible moment in a truly terrible half-hour interview.
There is little point in labouring the issue. Three million people watched live as Andrew Neil took Jeremy Corbyn apart (on antisemitism, on spending commitments, on the tax burden of his manifesto). Another million or so will have caught up by now and many more than that will have seen the clips pushed out by the Conservative Party over the course of the week. It is not great for the Labour Party’s chances of closing the gap with the Tories.
Meanwhile, it looks as though Boris Johnson was one of the three million who watched it, because the Prime Minister seems to have decided that he’d rather not put himself through the same ordeal. On the one hand, who can blame him? Why throw yourself in front of the bus? On the other, his refusal to participate in the Channel Four climate emergency debate and his dithering about Andrew Neil do risk repeating one of his predecessor’s mistakes. The British public aren’t keen on politicians who refuse to engage or to give an account of themselves and their policies. They don’t like people who look like they’re hiding something. And Boris has a pre-existing problem with perceptions about his trustworthiness – reinforcing people’s prior concerns about you is not a great move in the middle of an election campaign.
And so, with safety-first Johnson ghosting the BBC and Jeremy Corbyn reduced to waving around leaked banalities from the US trade deal pre-negotiation, the British public might be forgiven for looking elsewhere than the two main parties. The mystery is that (in England and Wales, at least) they aren’t.
Far from the sweeping comeback that Jo Swinson and her team were dreaming of (and briefing out) just a few weeks ago, the Lib Dems are seriously struggling. The Brexit Party has collapsed as well, to the benefit of the Conservative Party, but that is mainly the result of Farage’s suicide strategy of telling voters that Boris’ deal is Brexit after all. The Lib Dems on the other hand are being squeezed badly – Labour Remainers are proving stickier than they had hoped and Tory Remainers seem to have quietly folded back into the pack – despite themselves. No-one is predicting a return to the halcyon days of sixty seats now. The status quo looks very much more likely.
This leaves Swinson very exposed. Added to this, polling shows that the more voters see of the Lib Dem leader, the less they like her. Awkward given they’ve painted their battle buses with giant images of her face and describe themselves as ‘Jo Swinson’s Lib Dems’ in their literature.
The party is seeking to pivot away from its original messaging – which, eccentrically, was premised on Swinson herself somehow becoming PM – onto a ‘lend us your vote to stop a Johnson majority’ strategy. The new message has an advantage over the old – in that it isn’t obviously complete fantasy – but it is late in the day and they are struggling to get attention either way.
All of which means that – as we close the week – the odds are still on the Conservative Party getting a majority. Yes, the polls are somewhat narrowing. Yes, the Lib Dems are being squeezed. But as our Spotlight series is demonstrating, when you dig into who needs to win what to produce any given outcome it is much easier to see a Tory path to victory than a Labour one. This was borne out this week by YouGov’s MRP model (which uses an overlapping matrix of datasets to make seat by seat predictions). Of course something might happen that shifts the dial dramatically and helps Labour catch up. But it is worth bearing in mind that some party figures hoped that the game changer would be the release of those trade documents. It does not look or feel as though that has cut through. And if not that, or the manifesto, or the debates then… what?
A pretty sorry state of affairs all round, then. A Leader of the Opposition who won’t apologise to victims of racism and doesn’t understand his tax policy. A Prime Minister who refuses to submit himself to scrutiny and who nobody really trusts. A third party that is sinking under the weight of its own hubris and overconfidence. And a campaign being fought with a level of nastiness and childishness that feels at once intense and ridiculous.
Lou Reed once sang that the only good thing about growing up in a small town was that you knew you had to get out of it. For many voters the election feels similar. The best thing about it is that it will be over soon.