“None of the above” is always a tempting choice atBritish elections, but this year perhaps more than ever. A weary nation is readying fake smiles to greet Labour MPs who will publiclyendorse a leaderthey privately fear could ruin the country.
They are also gritting their teeth to face Conservatives who have failed to deliver Brexit and ousted many of their independent thinkers. Voters are hoping the Liberal Democrats don’t kick off their campaign debating theological questions on gay sex, as they did last time. Rarely has the nation felt so cynical about politics with so much reason.
The orthodox view is that Boris Johnson is on course to win, withpromising poll ratings. His team have always sought an election before Labour has the wit to ditch Jeremy Corbyn, who, they believe, is a soufflé that can’t rise twice. If the Remain opposition parties split the vote, Tory strategists think Johnson may just get his cake and eat it.
They are nervous, though. Johnson’s scorched-earth policy could backfire. Johnson has probably lost 10 seats in Scotland by alienating the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson. There will be inevitable losses to Remain parties in the south-west, the home counties and London. Johnson’s polling has been weak among women.
The mass exodus of moderate MPs from his party does nothing to soften the Prime Minister’s image, especially among the four in 10 Conservative voters who backed Remain in the referendum. To win, he must achieve the Damascene conversion of northern Labour voters.
Nigel Farage’s threatto contest every seat, unless Johnson drops his EU exit deal, suggest the decision to turn the Conservative Party into a party of Brexit may end up being a net loss. While the two leaders wrangle, Brexit purists should reflect that the vanquishing of Nicky Morgan, Amber Rudd and David Gauke from the Tory ranks has removed some of the most experienced and acceptable faces of Toryism. Morgan was especially good at projecting a likeable, straightforward presence at election time, which the Tories will miss as they fill the airwaves with battalions of shrill, angry men.
You wouldn’t want to be stuck next to them at dinner. Labour’s versions have perfected a kind of evangelical pity for anyone who disagrees with them.
The Trump spectre
Meanwhile, Donald Trump looks set to hover over this election like a poltergeist, creating mischief with his calls for a Brexit alliance between the Conservative and Brexit parties. The last time a US president tried to interfere, during the Brexit referendum, it didn’t go so well.
Johnson’s team have long planned to frame this election as a presidential contest, pitting him against Corbyn. That makes sense given his opponent’s manifest weaknesses, and the desire to deprive Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem leader, of the oxygen of publicity. Yet it is also a risk. Corbyn comes to life on the stump; Johnson doesn’t always seem to do his homework.
There was a telling moment this week in Parliament. The team that briefs the PM for questioning is always on the lookout for the subject of the National Health Service, a potent weapon for Labour which is historically more trusted on healthcare.
Donald Trump looks set to hover over this election like a poltergeist, creating mischief with his calls for a Brexit alliance.
The Tories thought they had neutralised the issue by promising more cash on hospitals. But by talking up the prospects of a Britain-US trade deal after Brexit, Johnson has created a Trumpian noose for himself. When Corbyn asked about the revelations that British trade negotiators have discussed drug pricing with US pharmaceuticals executives, Johnson retorted, irrelevantly and impatiently, that “we will invest massively in the NHS”. I used to think his habit of resorting to vague superlatives was a public-school tic. Now, I wonder if it’s a device to conceal a vacuum.
Whatever denials are issued by the White House, few care about the NHS more than the new Tory target voter, “Workington Man” – the older, white Leaver in the north of England. Johnson’s offer of tax cuts and buccaneering free enterprise after Brexit sits uneasily with Workington Man’s concerns about job security and public spending. In so far as the stereotype exists, he may resent being patronised by metropolitan elites bearing gifts of new cancer scanners.
A potent Tory message in this election will be “vote Liberal, get Labour”. It would be a truly awful prospect if Corbyn became leader of a coalition in a hung parliament, with his acolytes running rings around inexperienced Lib Dems in No. 10 Downing Street.
In fact, however, Labour MPs are gagging for an excuse to unseat their leader, which will be one of Swinson’s prices for entering any coalition. Her other demand will be a second Brexit referendum, perhaps supported by the SNP and the DUP. Intense discussions are already under way between Remain parties about standing down for each other in individual seats. Whether they can agree an effective tactical voting operation is not clear, but it could pose a real threat to Johnson.
“Get Brexit Done” is a slogan designed to persuade the British they can stop worrying about politics if they only vote for Johnson. The truth, of course, is that his “deal” would embroil Britain in negotiations and economic pain for years to come.
A faster way to stability might be to Remain. If Swinson makes that argument well enough, if her party becomes the public’s version of “none of the above”, victory could elude Johnson.
Camilla Cavendishis an FT columnist, Harvard Fellow and former head of PM David Cameron’s policy unit.