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What to look out for in this vitriolic election

Boris Johnson during a visit to Metropolitan Police in London. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

JAMES BALL on how we can expect the party campaigns to play out.

At long last, it’s finally over. Months after the rest of the country realised this current parliament couldn’t get anything done – other than deciding not to decide anything just yet, the message has sunk in with MPs and we are heading for a general election, truly in the bleak midwinter.

This was almost inevitably how this was going to end, simply because after Theresa May’s almost physical aversion to compromise and Boris Johnson’s deliberate divisiveness did the opposite of usual sensible politics and split rather than built coalitions.

Some hoped that somehow a second referendum could be held without an election, a distant hope requiring opposition politicians from vastly different political traditions to unite for months in a bid to secure a massively contentious vote.

Having finally run out of ways to not make a decision, MPs have voted to send themselves, their staff and their activists for six weeks knocking on doors in the rain, sleet, and hail – and forcing voters to the ballot boxes for the second time in less than three years.

Don’t expect this contest to be like the 2017 election, though. That bizarre contest saw the Conservatives throw away a landmark polling lead after a campaign which seemed to make pledges solely designed to annoy their core voters: Abolishing the pensions ‘triple lock’, and most notably introducing a ‘dementia tax’.

Faced with a government whose landmark manifesto pledge was effectively “we’ll take you nan’s house if she gets sick”, Labour pledged huge and sweeping giveaways, and still lost – but by so much less than they expected that, to them, it felt like a win. The Liberal Democrats were mostly relieved to avoid a total wipeout.

This will be different. Johnson’s campaign will come on strong. The Lib Dems have a new and clear message. And Labour will be determined to show they can repeat the shock of 2017. This will be one of the most frenetic – and vitriolic – campaigns of living memory. Here’s what to look out for….

The game plans

Conservatives: The core of the Tory game plan is not hard to fathom – 
Boris Johnson will stress at every opportunity that a vote for his party is a vote to “Get Brexit Done”. But don’t expect to see the half-hearted and complacent 2017 campaign – Johnson’s party will roll out numerous populist policies, with little if any mention of austerity or similar.

Expect to see more police numbers, tax cuts, new hospitals, and all sorts of election giveaways on offer. Expect details on how any of this will be funded to be non-existent.

Labour: Jeremy Corbyn’s party will spend the campaign talking about everything except Brexit, an issue on which the leadership has reluctantly agreed to hold a second referendum on, but not decided how the party will vote if it secures one. A leaked copy of the party’s planning grid shows Brexit as the intended topic on just two of 25 days of campaigning.

Instead, expect to see a repeat of 2017’s promised land of milk and honey, but this time with even more wonderful giveaways – such as free social care, affordable housing, a four-day week, and more. Blair’s Labour was always anxious to under-promise and over-deliver, so naturally Corbyn’s Labour will do the opposite. In 2017, Labour was keen to give at least the impression it knew where the funding for its plans would come from. Given Johnson has thrown out the spending restraints, Corbyn may not need to this time.

Liberal Democrats: Expect to hear a lot about “the only party of Remain” from the Lib Dems. Their policy to revoke Brexit if they secure a majority may be a scenario astronomically unlikely to happen, but means they are inarguably the most anti-Brexit choice of the major parties.

Expect to hear about almost nothing else. Jo Swinson bet the farm on being able to hold an election on almost exactly these terms, and has been granted her wish. Given most of her target seats are currently Tory-held, don’t expect to see much in the way of a swing to the left – that’s not what they want to hear in the shires.

The SNP: Given that the other major parties appear to be hoping at best to hold on to one or two of their seats in Scotland, the SNP are set to sweep to victory even if they stay at home with their feet up for the next six weeks. Do, though, expect to see a promise of a new independence referendum on their manifesto, to try to boost the legitimacy and perceived mandate for their long-sought goal.

The Brexit Party: The best thing they can do to ensure Brexit happens is to stay and home and not stand for office. They are unlikely to win any seats anywhere in the country, but if they aggressively campaign they could split the Brexit vote, with the most likely beneficiaries the Lib Dems and, to a lesser extent, Labour.

Given that, you might expect the party not to bother turning out – but this would underestimate the ego of Nigel Farage, who, if not bought off with something substantial, is likely to push the election as a platform for his gain, his supposed cause be damned.

Keep an eye out for…

The polls will tighten. Elections are generally good for opposition parties, and it’s hard to dislike much of what Labour will offer – even if some voters are (perhaps rightly) sceptical any party could deliver so much in so little time, especially without increasing taxes on most people.

Labour exaggerate the impact of ‘fair election rules’ (broadcasters always have to be impartial, but in elections have to grant time proportionally to vote share – newspapers can do what they like), but they do work to help give opposition parties a platform.

The Conservatives won’t necessarily despair if the polls seem to close – they’ll be worried complacency could keep their voters at home, especially in a dark and miserable winter election.

One serious concern will be abuse and perhaps even threats to candidates, who will necessarily be out and about and meeting the public even more than usual. Against this febrile backdrop, it is important political leaders and others work to make sure the election is safe and fair.

Finally, it will be interesting to watch online activity and outside groups – whose support for parties is restricted during election time. Following the bitter rows over cheating and fairness in the Brexit campaign, we have changed precisely zero rules governing how elections work – a lamentable failure. So expect scrutiny, accusations, and counter-accusations.

What different results will mean

Conservative majority: Even a tiny Tory majority will probably spell Game Over for those wanting to stop Brexit – the party’s makeup will change and all its MPs will have been elected on a pledge to pass Johnson’s deal. If his majority is small, however, expect a return to chaos as he tries to negotiate the future relationship.

Conservatives are the largest party: If Johnson falls short of a majority even by a whisker, we risk absolute chaos. There are essentially no other parties he can look to for a supply and confidence agreement, let alone a coalition. In this circumstance we could easily be left 
with a situation where no-one can command a majority in the Commons. This could easily result in another very swift winter election.

Labour are the largest party: This is where things get tricky. In theory, given the Lib Dems and SNP are expected to do well, there are the numbers for an informal governing coalition to pass a second referendum and perhaps a few selected other pieces of legislation. In the SNP’s case, this could include an independence referendum.

That’s far from a given, though. There is no love lost between Corbyn and Swinson, and so if Lib Dem votes were required to put Labour into power, they may ask for a new leader – and Labour would be likely to give this short shrift, especially after ‘winning’ an election in this way. If an agreement were reached, expect it to be short-term and fractious. This would be unlikely to run to five years, given the divides in the groups concerned.

A Labour majority: No-one knows what this would mean for Brexit, other than a likely second referendum. But it could represent the election of the most radical government since 1945 – and possibly since long before then. However, it’s regarded as a very remote possibility – with odds of around 24 to 1 offered by most bookmakers.

For readers of this newspaper, this election will be about Brexit – whether Labour likes it or not. It is certainly the last chance to stop it. But doing so will prove difficult indeed.

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