Literally nobody knows where politics is heading. One way or another, voters may well be called to the polls at some point in 2019. With the odds at political betting sites about a second referendum drifting, a general election seems likelier.
Labour want one, are committed to pursuing it and have been on an election footing since 2017. Rumours persist of Tory preparations for a snap February poll. If Theresa May can't secure her Brexit deal and parliament forces a delay beyond June, she may decide calling Jeremy Corbyn’s bluff to be her best option.
Likewise the polls are virtually tied, as they have been since the 2017 election and indicated by local results. Two of the last three general elections produced hung parliaments and in the other, David Cameron’s small majority required a big betting upset. No Overall Majority is available at 5/4 with Paddy Power.
Ask any psephologist and they will predict more of the same but nothing, of course, is predictable anymore. In both 2015 and 2017 the polls, pundits and bookies were all proved spectacularly wrong.
One reason behind unpredictability has been the rise and fall of smaller parties during a period of realignment. The Lib Dems lost two-thirds of their vote share after 2010, with most eventually backing Labour. The SNP swept Scotland, primarily at Labour’s expense. UKIP won 4M votes in 2015, then lost 85% of them.
It seems voters wised up to the ‘first past the post’ electoral system in 2017 and - during a polarised era - united around the only realistic winners. Is that the new normal or a temporary, tactical development?
The latest polls show UKIP benefiting from fear among Brexiters of betrayal, at the expense of the Conservatives. The Greens are improving to a lesser extent, probably hurting Labour. Either, or a sudden resurgence of the ultra-Remain Lib Dems would transform the maths.
Therein lies a problem for both May and Corbyn - retaining their improved vote shares requires maintaining new voter coalitions. Much could change now Brexit, and their respective positions, have evolved.
The outline of any Tory campaign is predictable. They will bank on scoring open goals by attacking Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott. Labour policies will be derided as uncosted, unworkable and parallels drawn with Venezuelan socialism. Expect a repeat of the 2015 warnings about a Labour/SNP coalition.
The Tories would want to make it all about Brexit again, and most target seats would again be Leave-voting areas such as Stoke-on-Trent. All of which begs the obvious question - why would it be more successful this time?
One answer is that Labour’s policy could unravel. Their Brexit positioning has been a masterclass in fudge, but divisions within the party could explode if and when Corbyn jumps off the fence. Their manifesto is agreed collectively and will be much harder to resolve at what would be a special ‘Brexit election’ than to maintain unity at the party conference.
Fighting an election on an ill-defined ‘Labour Brexit’ would be highly problematic. Two thirds of Labour voters and an even higher percentage of members are Remainers. That policy would likely shed millions of voters to the Lib Dems and Greens.
That is about the only incentive for the Tories ends, though. Unless confident of gaining MPs, what is there to gain? Otherwise, grim parliamentary arithmetic would worsen a barely manageable situation.
Moreover, an election would intensify and expose the Tory civil war. Given that uniting around Brexit is evidently impossible, what would be the policy. Would remainer MPs be deselected? Division would dominate their campaign.
Nor, as in the old days, can they be confident of controlling the election narrative. The ultimate 2017 gamechanger was the rise of Momentum and Labour’s social media game. Facebook, rather than Tory tabloids, is the powerful medium nowadays.
Momentum won’t have it their own way. The Brexit Right, via Westminster or Leave.EU, are proving themselves highly effective on social media. So are FBPE/Peoples Vote campaigners. In contrast more conventional factions - Tory mainstream, Labour centrists, Lib Dems - still struggle to cut through. May supporters would be overwhelmed in the crossfire.
My prediction is that Labour gain seats, but not enough to prevent the Tories being the largest party. However they will be well short of a majority, even with DUP support. Only Labour will be able to construct a basic majority. They would govern as a minority, forging a confidence deal with the others, most notably the SNP.
No Overall Majority is a superb bet. Unless Labour make unlikely gains in Scotland, a majority is out of range. The Tories are in no position to make advances. The only predictable thing is more gridlock for the foreseeable future.
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