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The election gamble that will make or break the Remain cause

Liberal Democrat politicians (from left to right) Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Ed Davey, Siobhan Benita, Tom Brake, Sam Gyimah, after Leader of the Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson. Photograph: Liberal Democrats/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

Like the last December election in 1923, the Tories could lose their grip on power. But, as BARNABY TOWNS explains, this election is a massive gamble for Remain parties too.

For what it’s worth, Britain’s last December general election — nearly a century ago in 1923 — doesn’t offer encouraging omens for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. Prime minister Stanley Baldwin sought a personal mandate after assuming power from the ailing Andrew Bonar-Law, who had resigned. Unlike Johnson, the Tories enjoyed a comfortable Commons majority with 344 of 615 constituencies. Baldwin lost the Tory majority in spectacular fashion that winter, with the Labour Party taking second place for the first time and the divided Liberals taking scores of Tory seats.

Echoing this election, Baldwin also sought approval for a new policy: the controversial issue of tariff reform. The Tories’ protectionist stance had been a major factor in 1906’s Liberal landslide and was disavowed by the Conservatives until Bonar-Law’s 1921 Safeguarding of Industries Act, which applied a 33% tariff to nine imports deemed to have been essential to Britain’s First World War effort. Baldwin proposed a nationalist economic policy of imperial preference, raising import duties on goods from outside the Empire ostensibly to protect domestic jobs and industries from foreign competition.

Like Brexit, Baldwin’s imperial preference spoke to Britain’s trade relations and place in the world. In common with other general elections designed to push a particular policy — February 1974 when Edward Heath wanted to curb union power and Theresa May’s 2017 push for her hard Brexit plan — 1923’s election was similarly ill-fated. Whether Boris Johnson’s attempt to make December’s election about ‘getting Brexit done’ — a questionable proposition, when passing his ultra-hard Brexit blueprint would likely involve years of complex negotiations with the EU — remains to be seen.

It isn’t yet clear whether pro-Europeans will relish or regret our pre-Christmas election, but there also was risk in continuing with the parliament elected in 2017. In particular, the combination of the 19 Labour members who voted for Johnson’s Brexit bill on second reading, with the prime minister’s propensity to make promises that he doesn’t intend to keep, might have delivered Brexit.

Not unusually, parties that expect to make gains — the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists — were the most enthusiastic for calling an election. Labour, which may well lose seats to all three, and the Democratic Unionists and Change UK, whose fortunes are less certain, are least keen.

In pro-Remain London, the Lib Dems have seven Tory constituencies in their sights: Richmond Park (Brexiteer Zac Goldsmith’s seat), Sutton & Cheam, Wimbledon, Chelsea & Fulham, Putney, Cities of London and Westminster and Finchley & Golders Green. A further five Labour seats also look inviting to them: Bermondsey & Old Southwark, Vauxhall, Hornsey & Wood Green, Kensington and Battersea.

Lib Dems also hope to make gains in the South, focusing on seats that voted Remain or in which Remain may now be a majority. Some 18 Tory seats fall into this category, including such Tory London commuter constituencies as Lewes, Winchester, Guildford and Woking as well as Labour’s Canterbury. In the South West, some former Lib Dem seats returned majorities for Leave in 2016, but Tory Cheltenham, which voted 57% Remain, is in play, as are a further five Tory marginals.

Even in strongly pro-Brexit Eastern England, Liberal Democrats have high hopes of retaining North Norfolk, where incumbent Lib Dem Norman Lamb is retiring in a seat that voted Leave but which analysis from Best for Britain now has on a Leave-Remain knife-edge. Lib Dems also are looking to strongly Remain Cambridge, a Labour marginal, and St. Albans, a Tory one, and a further three Tory Remain seats and two that Best for Britain reckons have flipped from Leave to Remain.

In the North West, the Lib Dems may benefit from their latest Tory recruit, Antoinette Sanbach in Eddisbury, while Tory-held Cheadle, Southport and Hazel Grove all chalked up Remain majorities. They also are looking to hold Tim Farron’s pro-Remain Westmorland & Lonsdale seat.

And in Yorkshire, three Remain seats are of interest to the Lib Dems: Labour’s Sheffield Hallam and Leeds North West and the Tories’ Harrogate and Knaresborough—all majority Remain.

Scotland is more challenging for Lib Dems as their two biggest targets are Remain troopers SNP Brexit spokesperson Stephen Gethens, who holds the UK’s most marginal seat, Fife North East with a majority of two over the Liberal candidate and SNP leader Ian Blackford, whose 9,999 majority is likely safe.

With the departure of popular Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, and a likely negative ‘Johnson effect,’ all 13 of the Tories’ Scotland seats are at risk from the SNP, which expects to do well, and which also has its sights on six ultra-marginal Labour seats. Winning all of these would reduce the Tories to zero and Labour to one constituency north of the border.

Independents and independent Tories may give the Conservatives a run for their money in some seats, with prospects probably best in Remainer Dominic Grieve’s Beaconsfield seat, where the Lib Dems have stood down to boost his chances. Hardcore Brexiteers Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) and Iain Duncan-Smith (Chingford) may be vulnerable to Labour performing better in London than elsewhere. Meanwhile. The Brexit Party’s best hope for a seat is probably Thurrock in Essex.

Remainers’ weakest link, as ever, is Jeremy Corbyn, whose polling weakness — currently averaging 18 points below Labour’s 2017 score, while the Tories sit eight points below their 2017 benchmark — makes many Labour seats, especially in the Midlands and North of England, look enticing for the Conservatives.

The 5% swing that current polling represents would yield the Conservatives around 60 Labour constituencies on a uniform swing — all majority Leave. Yet Tory vulnerabilities only really stretch to 46 seats at the very most with Lib Dems and SNP performing superbly. Such a net gain of 14 seats net, for example, would produce a Tory majority of 12.

Some Tories and non-Tories alike doubt the party’s ability to win seats where voters still recall the de-industrialisation of the 1980s. These electors could instead choose the Brexit Party, but splitting the Leave vote makes taking seats from Labour harder.

The extent of Labour’s electoral fragility could make all the difference between a hung parliament with no Brexit and a slim Tory majority for Boris Johnson’s extreme Brexit.

This winter election may spring a surprise, like December 1923’s, which led to the fall of the Tory government on a no-confidence vote and the first-ever Labour ministry. Out of cold, dark and perhaps wet conditions, 2019’s election could be the most decisive since 1979 or 1945, with huge implications for Britain’s prosperity and prominence in Europe and the world — all hinging on whether we crash out, or self-destructively distance ourselves from the EU, or Remain.

Barnaby Towns is a former Conservative Party special adviser

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