As an early Christmas present, Parliament has granted the British public their say. On who will form the next Government, on what will happen on Brexit, on which MPs will spend Boxing Day filling out their redundo applications and which will be clinking champagne flutes with a sigh of relief. Be grateful, voters, for your time has come.
Of course, for many opponents of the Government this is not quite the public vote they wanted. Die-hard supporters of a second Brexit referendum have long sought to avoid a General Election on the basis that the deadlock in the current Parliament provided an opportunity to instead resolve the European question through a plebiscite. They had some pretty good logic backing them up – one, there is no guarantee that an election, which by necessity will be about more than the EU, will provide clarity about what voters want; two, we may well end up exactly where we have been stuck these last three years, with a Parliament that can agree on all the things it doesn’t like but not on anything that it does. But true as all that may be, Jo Swinson and the SNP’s decision to essentially force Labour into backing an election makes sense too. Firstly, for both the Scots Nats and the Lib Dems, an unresolved Brexit impasse means Remainers have solid reasons to back them at the ballot box. And secondly, whatever their personal hopes are for a ‘People’s Vote’, this Parliament has shown itself (seventeen times, no less) incapable of delivering one. Better to roll the dice than to go round and round the roulette wheel without conclusion or catharsis. And anyway, for all the howls of ‘betrayal’ from Remain-minded Labour MPs (only 127 of the Labour PLP voted for an election) Corbyn and those closest to him have wanted this all along. The Labour leader is at his best and his most comfortable on the campaign trail. And he really does want to be PM – a prospect that, for an elderly man, becomes less likely with every month that passes without an election.
Much rides, then, on the framing of this election. Labour want to square off the Brexit issue with a compromise (or a fudge, depending on your outlook) that says ‘you will get the final say but we will make sure it includes the offer of a viable Brexit’. They then hope to concentrate on home turf – opposing austerity and championing the NHS. The Tories want to square off austerity and the NHS with a compromise (or a lie, depending on your outlook) that says ‘you can trust us to boost investment in public services and build you loads of new hospitals’. They then hope to concentrate on what they perceive as their strong suit – getting Brexit done and locking up wrong uns. This is the essential air war that will form the media-strategic locus of this election. The party that wins this battle on framing will have a huge advantage.
On the ground, things look more complicated and more messy. The mighty Labour campaign machine will swing into action – we should not forget or dismiss its successes in 2017. Momentum, trade unions and an array of aligned groups and organisations will troop to the doorsteps and the sheer volume of Labour campaigners is unlikely to be matched in many places by the Conservative Party – whose members are older, fewer and less hardy against the perils of a winter campaign. But the left-Remain vote is split and an insurgent Lib Dem operation (well-funded, boosted by radicalised pro-Europeans) muddies the picture for both Labour and the Tories. It is instructive and interesting that two of the flashiest and most talented new recruits to the Lib Dem ranks (Chuka Umunna and Sam Gyimah) have been parachuted into London marginals (fighting Tory and Labour seats respectively) – the Lib Dem strategy is more geographic in its targeting (affluent and urban) than fixated on taking seats from any one party in particular. Meanwhile, CCHQ waits with baited breath to see what Nigel Farage commands his troops to do when he finally emerges from whichever bunker he has been plotting in for the last few weeks. If he chooses to go big – to fight 600 seats, say – then the Brexit Party leader could do a lot of damage to the Tory ‘Workington Man’ strategy of stealing working class Brexit voters from Labour. If he chooses to narrow his focus, to Labour seats where the Tories stand no realistic chance, he may help tip the balance of power in the next Parliament.
So, two questions now rule Boris Johnson’s hopes of a majority. One, is Brexit more important than public services in voters’ minds. Two, is Brexit more important than trouble-making in Farage’s mind. If the answer is ‘yes’ to both then Prime Minister Johnson is the most likely outcome. If it is ‘no’ then he is set to be even shorter lived in Number 10 than his immediate predecessor.