An election haunted by the spectre of 2017
Declan McHugh, Lexington
At this stage of the race in 2017 the Conservatives were out in front, but tiring, while the Labour Party was gaining momentum and coming up fast on the rails. The same is not true this time. Labour has gained some ground since the start of the campaign but in recent days the party’s support has appeared to plateau and it is showing no sign of reducing the Tory lead. Indeed a feature of the Labour campaign as we enter the final week is the lack of energy.
There is none of the dynamism or coherence of 2017. Big ticket, uncosted promises are being made with an increasing sense of desperation. The one counter point is the apparently relaxed attitude of Jeremy Corbyn, who appears happier than ever. Perhaps he knows something no one else does. Or perhaps he sees light at the end of his personal tunnel and can look forward to a relaxing Christmas.
Just as Labour is struggling to gain any serious traction, so the Liberal Democrats remain unable to cut through and impact on the contest. They are polling well up on 2017 – a problem for Labour – but seem a long way away from making the critical breakthrough in the South West that would be required to disrupt the Tory path to a majority. Even if they manage to double their share of the vote it may not result in more than a handful of seat gains. For Jo Swinson, the campaign looks to set to be seen as a personal defeat.
The Brexit Party has meanwhile continued to disintegrate. The decision of four MEPs, including Annunziata Rees Mogg, sister of the Tory Commons Leader, to advocate for Brexit supporters to give their votes to Boris Johnson is a further nail in the coffin of Nigel Farage’s campaign. The Brexit Party had been diminishing into a bit part player in this election for some time, marking a remarkable turnaround from the European elections in May when it topped the poll.
In Scotland, polls suggest that the Conservatives are set to avoid the wipe out that had appeared possible when Johnson was first elected as Tory leader, prompting the popular Ruth Davidson to step down. As the threat of a Scottish independence referendum rises, with Nicola Sturgeon adopting an explicit and aggressive nationalist posture, unionist voters north of the border are gravitating back to the one safe political haven – the Conservatives.
All this points to the strong likelihood of a comfortable Conservative majority at the end of next week, and indeed the Tories have been energetically setting out their plans for government, revealing priorities for the first 100 days.
Yet there remains a fundamental lack of self-belief at the heart of the Tory campaign. Although Boris Johnson has avoided the dramatic personal decline that undid Theresa May in the last campaign, concerns about his vulnerability in a number of areas has seen the Conservatives refuse to put him up against Andrew Neil.
More fundamentally, Tory nervousness about the risks attached to the manifesto, which backfired in the last campaign, meant that the recent programme was bereft of many details and determinedly avoided the vexed issue of social care. At the same time, they have made commitments not to raise personal taxes which will make for serious constraints in government. George Osborne certainly came to regret making similar commitments in a previous election.
The fact that such promises have nonetheless been made reflects an enduring Tory concern that the election might yet upset the polls and pundits, and fail to deliver a parliamentary majority. This is all a legacy of 2017. The party is haunted by the last election, which looms over the current contest. And so a Conservative campaign that ought to be growing in confidence and gaining momentum will end with the leader hiding from serious scrutiny.