28 November 2019

Talk of a Tory majority doesn’t help Boris – it’s all still to play for

By James Johnson

YouGov’s MrP model has projected a very good set of results for the Conservatives. If realised, Boris Johnson will have secured the first sizeable majority for his Party since Margaret Thatcher in 1987. As a former staffer of his told me this week, after years of scuffles between the two of them over prefect status and Oxford exam results, Boris will have finally bested David Cameron with a majority of 68 compared to his 17.

But unlike two years ago, when YouGov’s model came out after a Labour squeeze on voters had taken place, this time the model has been published just as a possible squeeze is occurring. The game is not yet sewn up for the Conservatives, and a perfect storm could yet develop over the next fortnight.

There are three potential stormclouds to watch for:

The first is voters’ expectations of victory. The logic is that if voters feel Jeremy Corbyn has no chance of becoming PM, then they will feel they can vote for someone else other than the Conservatives, or just stick with Labour.

This is a real phenomenon. In the post-mortem of the 2017 Election, which I presented to Cabinet, we found that long-time Labour voters who were sceptical of Corbyn stuck with their Party. Why? Because they were voting to stop a landslide Conservative majority, and didn’t think there was any prospect of Corbyn becoming Prime Minister.

On the eve of that Election, 7% of voters thought that a Labour majority was possible. When my company, J.L. Partners, polled that question two weeks ago, it was only 9%. Headlines about a big Conservative majority have likely made that figure lower still.

This matters because, if this stands, the urgency of voting Conservative to ‘get Brexit done’ will diminish. Many of these long-term Labour voters that the Tories are trying to win over will have to explain to their friends in the pub how they voted. They are not natural Conservatives, and if they can avoid voting for them, they will. Expectations of a big Tory victory may provide an excuse to do just that.

Second, Labour may get closer to the Conservatives in the polls. We need more evidence to know whether this is a trend, but Comres, Survation and YouGov themselves have shown the Labour vote growing in the last week or so, largely at the expense of the Liberal Democrats.

So far, when the Labour vote has grown so has the Conservatives’. But it is likely that the Conservatives have now ‘maxed out’ their potential votes. This is because they have largely squeezed the Brexit Party. They are still losing roughly 8% of their 2017 vote to the Liberal Democrats, but this number has stayed stubbornly rigid for the duration of the campaign. Thus, on paper, Labour has much more space to grow.

To do so they will be relying on the NHS. Private regression analysis I have seen shows this having a significant effect on vote choice, but it is currently being drowned out by the issues of leadership and Brexit. If Labour can bring this to the surface – clearly an aim with their recent press conference on the Trump trade deal – they will be hoping to bring Liberal Democrats, Greens, and current undecided voters over to them.

Third, we have already seen a significant squeeze on the Liberal Democrats. This is partly their own doing – they decided to spend the first two weeks of the campaign declaring Jo Swinson was the next Prime Minister, arguing over a bar chart on national TV, then proceeding to sue the major broadcasters for not including their leader in the debates.

Our model shows that if the Liberal Democrat vote share is between 12% and 26.5%, it will be good for the Conservatives. This is because the Lib Dems will be strong enough to take votes off Labour, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle in many seats, but not strong enough to take many seats in their own right. For most of this campaign it has looked like they will fall within that range. But for the first time, it is possible they might fall below 12%.

One can already start to see the effects of this in YouGov’s model. Though Kensington still goes blue, they have Labour holding seats like Enfield Southgate and Croydon Central. Another MrP projection, by Focal Data for Best for Britain, had the Conservatives gaining Croydon Central by 3 points at the start of the campaign. Now they have Labour holding it.

As things stand this is fine for the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats are still strong enough to make a difference in swing seats in the North and the Midlands. But a surprise route for the Conservatives in the South – through places like Enfield and Croydon – is now becoming closed off. If the high-risk path through the North and Midlands does not pay off, the Conservatives no longer have this accidental insurance policy in London and the South East.

Of course, it is possible the polls will not narrow. Corbyn remains electorally toxic, and the power of the call to ‘get Brexit done’ still permeates voters’ minds. All three of the above effects would have to happen together for it to make a real difference – and even then, it is likely only reducing a Conservative majority rather than depriving them of one.

But all eyes are on the next two weeks to see if these stormclouds gather – or if the Conservatives can keep the skies clear and deliver an historic result.

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James Johnson was senior research and strategy adviser to the Prime Minister 2016-19