Don't despair quite yet... Some hints of optimism in a dour election campaign

PUBLISHED: 12:35 21 November 2019 | UPDATED: 12:35 21 November 2019

Martin Rowson illustrates Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn

Martin Rowson illustrates Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn

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MICHAEL WHITE on signs that might offer more optimism than most polls allow

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Well, how do we think ITV's election debate went? Did Boris Johnson avoid a career-ending gaffe? Did Jeremy Corbyn make a breakthrough with wavering voters? You must be joking. The laughter from the Salford audience which periodically punctuated the pair's more outrageous claims provided the most telling verdict. "You're fired," as Alan Sugar might say, though not Donald Trump, not to you, Boris.

For me the top news line was not Johnson's repeated taunt that the Labour leader couldn't say - nine times - how he'd vote in a second Brexit referendum or Corbyn's much-repeated "He'll sell the NHS" mantra, complete with redacted Whitehall memo. No, it was Conservative HQ's wheeze to rebrand its Twitter account as a neutral 'factcheckUK' for the duration of Tuesday night's exchanges. How shabby is that? How morally desperate?

The low expectations bar in this campaign means that Corbyn's handlers can tell each other that their boy stuck to the script - widen the debate beyond Brexit to jobs, the NHS and climate change - while the Tories' hired guns must have been relieved that the prime minister was rarely worse than intellectually feeble. That must count as a points win.

"Johnson survives hazardous duel," was the FT's headline. "Neck and Neck" was the best the Times could do for their anti-hero's 51:49% snap poll win. "Laughable Mr Corbyn," sneered the Mail. In the real world, the event is more likely to have confirmed entrenched views on both sides than won converts from excluded parties whose leaders loudly voiced their scorn offstage.

So less than a month to go and the outcome of what TV stations rightly call the Brexit election (despite complaints that it plays into Boris Johnson's hands) and the bookies are still not certain which way to lay off some of the bets. The speed with which Prince Andrew's clumsy BBC interview drove the campaign off the television headlines - "Corbyn's Brexit Cop-Out" headlines relegated to page 14 in the Mail) reinforces 'not him' voter alienation from policies and leaders they mistrust. Cue laughter in Salford.

Will Brenda from Bristol go to her polling station on a cold December night if it's raining when even highly-motivated CBI conference delegates in Greenwich can barely contain their disdain for the three main party leaders? From North East Fife to St Ives, this election may randomly be decided by stay-at-home citizens. The thought is yet another reason for alarm. It would serve the politicians right - but not the rest of us.

When I read that the police have been asked to investigate allegations by Nigel Farage - surely the "Nick" of Brexit politics - that senior Tories offered "bribes" to Brexit candidates, I was surprised. Isn't that what candidates do in elections, especially this fantasy campaign? Perhaps officers should also investigate Boris' spending splurge, Jeremy's free broadband caper, "I'm with Jo" Swinson's generosity with pre-school care bills.

Given that the SNP's loans-for-honours complaint against Tony Blair led to a predictable showbiz failure by Scotland Yard I assume that Blair pal, Lord Charlie Falconer's willingness to associate with Farage's complaints was a bit of score-settling. I'm still puzzled why police are considering intervening at all. Especially so, since the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has parked its probe into former London mayor Johnson's cash-for-cuddles dealings with Jennifer ("fed to the lions") Arcuri, the self-styled tech entrepreneur. It's trivial but more serious than alleged promises to Ann Widdecombe of a seat on the Strictly Come Negotiating train to Brussels.

Why park the IOPC probe? Don'cha know, there's an election. The confusion over policy here sounds chaotic and I suspect it is. Our none-too-civil war over Brexit takes its toll on every aspect of governance, including its quality and coherence, the under-performing police included. Not just us, of course, just look at the Trump administration where a populist president's need for a sugar rush allows him to abuse a congressional witness - a woman, of course - in real time, live on Twitter, and to get away with it. So far.

It looks as if the Kremlin's US investment in chaos is paying dividends. Here too, as James Ball reported in last week's TNE. How much? To find out we must wait until that suppressed intelligence report is published after December 12. Deplorable, but the BBC's social media monitoring unit - one of several such welcome campaign upgrades - reports that most of the UK campaign's fake news this November is coming from the parties themselves. Even among the Lib Dems, highly targeted and emotive messaging, mostly aimed at young voters, is the growing trend. Let's hope those Snapchat users aren't too young to vote. Let's hope Tory HQ doesn't fake its 'factcheckUK' Twitter account again.

Back in the analogue world I was struck during the aforementioned Brexit Party's retreat from contesting Tory seats how little comment was wasted on the evident fact that the decision was Thirsty Nigel's alone. No rules needed to be complied with, no NEC or party hierarchy to consult, for all its claims to grassroots authenticity the Brexit Party is a one-man movement rooted in what Germans know as the leadership principle - the fuhrerprinzip. Follow the leader, but sack him when he fails, as Farage may finally be doing. Oh, the delicious irony of his fan base calling Nigel a "traitor" too!

The Tories have always been a bit leader-ish, never more so than now when the burden of the campaign is as unhealthily placed on World King Boris's sagging shoulders, as it was on Theresa May's in 2017.

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A brilliant campaigner and election winner? We keep being told so, the "greatest working class Tory hero since Churchill" (who wasn't). Yet on a public platform the WK repeatedly appears distressingly vague, emotionally disconnected too, as if he'd rather be anywhere else. "Uneasy" is the kindest word that comes to mind. In Salford they laughed at his reference to truthfulness.

Johnson obviously demonstrated disconnected self-adsorption in Monday's rambling performance at the CBI conference. Here was an intelligent anti-Brexit audience whom a Tory leader with a "F*** business" conviction to expunge should have wooed with a well-crafted speech. Instead he winged it, over-ran his time, and by most accounts was no better received than Corbyn. The Labour leader's declaration that he is not hostile to business cannot have comforted Jewish delegates in the hall. Only Swinson's "Stop Brexit" call sparked visible enthusiasm.

Yet Johnson used the event to execute one of the dreary campaign's more interesting manoeuvres. He announced postponement of that 2p cut in corporation tax - from 19p to 17p - in order to fund improvements in the NHS by saving the Treasury £6 billion. As he showed in Salford, that move serves a double purpose, it undermines Labour's powerful "Tory tax cuts for the rich" narrative while putting the Conservative spending pledges on slightly firmer ground. All right, so it undercut Andrea Leadsom's deployment of the dodgy Laffer Curve (lower tax rates generate more tax income) just a few hours earlier. Take one for the team, Andrea, if you want to keep your job.

The Tory lurch towards fiscal probity cannot be said of John McDonnell's newly unveiled plan to give us all free super-speed broadband access by nationalising BT's Open Reach arm. That was a shock, no prior softening up of public opinion before breaching the shadow chancellor's previous ("limit of our ambition") promise not to go beyond water, energy, rail and Royal Mail re-nationalisation (which is more than enough, John).

But buying Open Reach is also a silly idea. It will cost much more than Labour claims and probably make Open Reach's poor performance worse. Investors will flee and the taxpayer can't afford to fill the gap. Why free, by the way, John? Water isn't free. That's another £5 billion of income lost and Talk Talk stuffed. As with Labour's four-day week plan (laughter in Salford) and confusion over whether NHS staff will get one (no, the service would collapse) it does not inspire confidence at this late stage.

And yet... and yet... Like the abolition of student fees and prescription charges, free dental check-ups and much else, free broadband may have serious cut-through among voters who aren't paid to think hard about these issues. Devolved Scotland and Wales do all sorts of 'free' things - not much is really free, someone pays - which aren't necessarily a precedent to follow but are popular.

When McDonnell talks genially about a fairer society with fewer billionaires or food banks - "nothing personal… come in for a cup of tea," he tells one rich, pro-Brexit figure - he sounds more human and more attractive than safe-in-his-job (he only has Boris's word for it) Sajid Javid. The Saj sounds like the investment banker he once was. The bus driver's son doesn't connect emotionally, as Labour's viral NHS video does. Dying activist, Jayne Rae, recording her dreadful treatment in a chaotic A&E ("it looked like Beirut"), is propaganda, but also heart-breaking stuff.

Familiar campaign tactics you may feel, but among young voters and the anxious old, it's cut-through too. That's what forced Boris to stiff the CBI's tax cut. But if we put aside Brexit - a big if - the emotional disconnect goes deeper. Breaking one of my rules, I actually watched The Andrew Marr Show live on Sunday. Dominic Raab sounded like a smarmy lawyer. As on ITV's debate, Corbyn was also ludicrously evasive - it's always hard not to laugh at Labour's Brexit contortions. But his frailty sounded human, not like Raab's cyborg repeating of the phrase "independent coastal state" to wriggle out of Brexit fisheries policy or Boris' verbal incontinence.

Pollsters and Tory strategists insist that 'We, the People' Corbyn is Labour's fatal weakness, this in an election process where the party's traditional collective decision-making (John, Len and Seumas) gives way to a focus on leadership. Sensible Times columnist Rachel Sylvester hammers away at Corbyn's abysmal (minus 42) personal ratings, with voters finding him "weak", "fence-sitting," "racist", even "liar" now that the Glasto halo has slipped.

Regular readers know I'm not a Corbyn fan either. But when the alternatives offer is so unappealing, its advocates so brazen in their cynicism ("Give them some red meat on crime, Priti") and their leader a caricature of a randy Victorian mill owner, then caution is in order. It's simply not wise to declare the election over just because the polls are averaging 40% (Con), 28% (Lab) and 15% (Lib Dem) with the Farage party seemingly in palliative care. Polls also show how voters, angry, divided and confused, are even more volatile than they were last time. Politics is not rising to the challenge.

So I took unexpected comfort from the Green Party launch. Not that it's going far on 3% except in Brighton Pavilion, despite its admirable local pacts. But its Green Deal and its long-term perspective on a sustainable, more localised future - rather more important than Brexit even - are refreshing and ought to stimulate more convincing commitments from larger parties. The rivals' promises to plant more trees are all very well, but most are likely to be Magic Money Trees, the ones which generate more carbon, not less.

As I type Labour and the Tories, polishing their own manifesto details, are watering down the risky bits. Unite's Len McCluskey will have reminded comrades that his union cheque book keeps their LED lights on and trimmed commitments on the environment and almost-free movement of people. Labour's cakeist efforts to have it both ways on immigration - north and south, Brexit and Remain - have now been matched by the Tories. Real world necessity does sometimes impose itself on feelings. Fruit does not pick itself any more than the frail elderly pick themselves off the floor.

For Remainers the core problem is still that their forces are more divided than the Brexit army, now that Farage has struck camp. The meltdown at People's Vote and Swinson's veto on TNE's Tim Walker's gallant withdrawal in marginal Canterbury are painful reminders of that fact. But the countless conversations I have had with friends and family - "How should I and my conscience vote in my constituency?" - offer a more optimistic scenario.

By accident or design, the 2019 election may repeat 2017's near-stalemate, it may break, wearily but decisively, towards Johnson's "Get Brexit Done" pledge. Or a million Brendas from Bristol, Beccles and Buckie may take us on a different path.

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