ANDREW ADONIS: Sorry Lib Dems, an orange surge will only help the Tories

A general election is set to be held on 12 December. Picture: Ken Mears

A general election is set to be held on 12 December. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

ANDREW ADONIS sees only one way to stop Brexit.

A third election in barely four years. The last time that happened was in the 1970s and before that in the aftermath of the First World War, times of turbulence and national breakdown. It is the same today, and the outcome is equally unpredictable.

So much for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a misnomer almost as great as my own name. Like most of what the Lib Dems did in coalition with the Tories, it claimed to be progressive while in reality it was weak, irrelevant and hopelessly ineffectual.

This is the Brexit election and only Labour can stop it. It is very simple. The better Labour does, the worse for Brexit. The worse Labour does, the better for Brexit.

I am not making a party point but a psephological one. Some of my Lib Dem friends harbour dreams of a breakthrough with dozens of orange gains lighting up election night like a Christmas tree on December 12. It almost certainly won't happen, even if the Lib Dems surge at Labour's expense. Far more likely is that this would lead to more Tories winning on split opposition votes, as in the 1980s when the Conservatives won two successive landslides in such conditions.

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First past the post punishes insurgent parties without large geographical concentrations of support. It also benefits incumbent candidates, who are virtually all Labour and Tory. They can apply the tactical squeeze seat by seat because by definition they are the most plausible winner, advantaging Labour vis-a-vis the Lib Dems and the Tories vis-a-vis Farage's Brexit Party.

If, despite this, the Lib Dems or the Brexit Party surge, the most likely effect would be to undermine Labour and the Tories respectively, by leeching votes in their respective heartlands and handing seats to the 'other side'.

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The obvious exception is seats where the Lib Dems are themselves the main challenger to the Tories, which is true in much of the south and south-west of England outside London and the major cities. The more of these seats won by the Lib Dems, the better for Labour nationally and the worse for Brexit. Tactical voting websites will be much touted by Remainers in this election.

But it is a fine line between the Lib Dems doing well in seats they can realistically win and this not being part of a wider orange surge which harms Labour by splitting the vote in its heartlands. The only post-war elections in which both Labour and the Lib Dems have done well was under Tony Blair, and that was a different country.

This election will not turn solely on Brexit. Elections are never about one issue alone, even when called to resolve a crisis. Ted Heath called the February 1974 election on the slogan 'Who Governs Britain?' amidst paralysing miners strikes. He was expected to win easily. But Harold Wilson and Jeremy Thorpe deftly shifted it on to the government's incompetence and the declining standard of living. By polling day the answer to Heath's question was 'Not You!'

The Johnson-Corbyn leadership battle is equally unpredictable. Johnson is ahead on personality, but his ratings are deeply negative overall and he is the best recruiting sergeant for the opposition parties whose supporters hate him with bitter intensity. He could conceivably lose his own seat in Uxbridge.

Jo Swinson has the fresh face and will benefit from media attention. Will she flower like Thorpe or wilt like Tim Farron (who he)? It's hard to predict given her low profile hitherto.

The election in Scotland and Northern Ireland is existential for both. If the SNP sweep the board there will be another independence referendum. In Ulster the DUP did exceptionally well in 2017; if they fall back - Nigel Dodds himself is vulnerable to Sinn Fein - then a border poll may come soon, particularly if Brexit happens.

"When the great oracle speaks no one is quite sure what the great oracle said," the Tory prime minister Lord Salisbury remarked of elections. Maybe, maybe not.

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