On election night in 2017 a senior member of Tory campaign staff threw up, in the office, as the Exit Poll figures flashed on a big screen. They had known – they had thought – that they were not going to get the stonking 100 seat majority that early polls had suggested. But they had also known – they had also thought – that, in spite of a difficult campaign, they were still on course for a healthy improvement on the 2015 result.
They were wrong about that. Instead, the election returned a hung parliament. From that devastating – and for some, nausea inducing – result, all recent politics has flowed. It is why Theresa May did not manage to pass her Brexit deal, it is why Jeremy Corbyn is still the leader of the Labour Party, it is why Boris Johnson is our present Prime Minister. So it is right and proper to ask the question; will there be dry heaving and panic at CCHQ at 10pm on December 12th? And what would it mean if there was?
The polls are narrowing – as they did in 2017. And the Lib Dems are being squeezed – as they were in 2017. So it would be entirely sensible for Conservative staffers to be prepping the sick bags. But there are also significant differences at play. In 2017 the UKIP vote universally collapsed as Labour Leavers returned to their traditional party. This allowed Labour to hold on to very Brexity heartland seats even as they made inroads into middle class, more Remainish territory like Canterbury and Kensington. Early evidence from the Labour-Tory battlegrounds, where the Brexit Party is still fielding candidates, is that a chunk of disgruntled Labour voters are this time sticking with Farage. These are the sort of people who can’t bring themselves to vote Tory. The sort of people whose tribalism Labour counts on. Given the chance to give Corbyn a bloody nose without backing the party of Thatcher, some are seizing it by voting for the Brexit Party.
This is why the four Brexit Party MEPs who have resigned this week, claiming that Farage is risking a Labour Government by standing in these seats, may be wrong. By splitting off Labour Leave voters who were never realistically Tory targets, the Brexit Party may (in a handful of seats) be clearing a path for Conservative candidates to come through the middle to snatch victory in some very surprising places. Keep your eye on South Yorkshire and on the North East, where this effect has the potential to be most acute.
There is another dynamic at play here, too. In Scotland the Tory Party had been expected to face a wipe out. Not just from hacks and observers, either, the higher ups in the Scottish Party were deeply concerned about the impact of a Boris leadership on their hard-fought come back. But, so far, it looks as though the Scottish Tories are for the most part holding on. Scottish Labour is a dead and withered thing and don’t forget that 40% of Scots voted for Brexit or that these voters are heavily concentrated in Tory-held seats. If you are a Scot who opposes independence you have every reason to vote Conservative. If you are a Scot who supports Brexit, you have every reason to vote Conservative. A product of devolution is that, when it comes to Westminster elections, these big constitutional issues have incredible salience in Scotland. Westminster doesn’t run the health service or education up there but it does make decisions about Scotland’s place in the world, so it is perfectly rational to prioritise these questions at the ballot box over public services and austerity.
Boris does double figures in Scotland and wins northern seats from Labour then it is easy to see where that majority would come from. And it is hard to say the same for Labour.
The Labour campaign has been scattergun. Scattergun in messaging – with that scribbled shopping list of policies that keeps being added to and the price of which is genuinely eye-watering. Scattergun in operations – with activists being sent en masse to campaign in high-profile but likely unwinnable seats. It lacks discipline and strategic command and control. There is no chance whatever of a Labour majority, of course. But it is also difficult to imagine where they will win seats from the Conservative Party (or the Lib Dems, whose campaign has been bad but not *that* bad) in order to become the biggest party.
Boris lacks potential allies in the event of another hung parliament and certainly lacks options when it comes to coalition building. But he has much less far to travel than Corbyn and his campaign – for all its flaws, moral and practical – is simply better run. For that reason, with a week to go, the smart money has to still be on a Conservative majority of some kind. It is hubris. And hubris rarely pays consistent dividends for its sufferers.