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Why the bar that the Tories will have to surmount at the next election has just got higher

October 23rd, 2019

All the talk is of elections. This time we might actually see one. In a narrative that has strong echoes of 2017, the talk is all of the Conservatives holding large leads in the polls, remaking their coalition and sweeping all gloriously before them with a victory that will transform the electoral map.

Well, perhaps. It was Marx who first suggested that when history repeats itself, the first time is tragedy and the second is farce. Whether or not you see Theresa May as a tragic figure, Boris Johnson would not be out of place on a theatre stage up the road from Downing Street in Whitehall where the protagonist’s trousers are falling from his waist at a moment’s notice. And his current buoyant polling position may well flatter to deceive. It seems to be largely built on dislike of Jeremy Corbyn rather than on any great enthusiasm for the Prime Minister or his project.  

Beneath the voting intention figures, the polling holds warnings for the Conservatives. The Prime Minister is not a popular figure. His government is by broad consensus perceived to be handling the Brexit negotiations badly (75% of respondents in the latest YouGov). In the latest YouGov, just 18% of the general population thought that his deal was good (30% think it is bad). These are not the figures of a party or a leader who can be sure of the public’s backing. It could easily all go very wrong very quickly.

And the Conservatives have, largely unnoticed, made the task of forming the next government considerably harder for themselves in the last week. If they were to win an overall majority, they would have nothing to worry about. This remains an odds-against shot on Betfair, however.

What if they fall short? Then they have rather a big problem. Who might they form a coalition with? Never mind that, who might they seek confidence and supply from? When Theresa May mislaid her majority in 2017, Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens were all non-starters as potential allies. There was only one party in Parliament that she could even start talking with: the DUP.

After the last week, one has become none. Boris Johnson can never, never, never, never expect any help ever again from the DUP. Come to that, nor can any of his successors for the foreseeable future. The DUP have memories that make elephants look absent-minded. They are not known for their sweet and forgiving nature. If ever an enemy was implacable, the DUP is that enemy.

Of course, the next Parliament might not look like this Parliament. It might have a cohort of MPs from the Brexit party, who the Conservatives might hope would make more congenial coalition partners. Current polling gives no reason to suggest that the Brexit party in a 2019 election would do any better than UKIP did in 2015. If they do, it will be because Nigel Farage has managed to make himself relevant to the Brexit debate. This is unlikely to be to the advantage of the Conservatives, who have in recent weeks pushed him to the margins. The votes he would scoop up would mostly be from them.

That doesn’t mean that all of the Conservatives’ opponents would unite under a single leader, especially if the Labour leader is Jeremy Corbyn. It does, however, mean, that without a vote being cast the bar for them remaining in government has risen from something like 305 MPs to something like 315 MPs.

They can still do it, of course.  The Conservatives have at least got their story straight. They are aided by the divisions among their opponents. It has, however, got just that bit harder.

Alastair Meeks