So we’re off to the polls in December for what is likely to be the most unpredictable general election in a long while.
Nationwide, four parties are likely to be relevant at the polling booths – the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party – meaning that small swings could have quite dramatic effects on the result. Regional parties like the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Irish parties will further impact the outcome.
The first battle will be each party’s attempt to grab the initiative to frame what the election is all about.
The Lib Dems and the Brexit Party will want to make this a Brexit election; the former standing firmly for remaining in the European Union, the latter arguing for a clean break with no strings attached. Hard Remain vs Hard Leave.
Labour will want this to be anything but a Brexit election. Their fractured and confused Brexit position combines with their belief that they are the only party to offer a coherent vision of radical domestic reform. In that, they are probably right. Whether voters want to listen – and, if they do, whether they like what they see – remains to be seen.
So far, the only hint of a Tory platform is an attempt to frame the election as a ‘people versus parliament’ contest. Going down this route would be an absurdity worthy of Mr Cummings – fiery aggressive phrases that are, ultimately, meaningless.
An election is a process by which a parliament is elected – and most of those seeking election are parliamentarians already. People against parliament would involve pitchforks and barricades not polling booths. Besides, it is not clear whether people are starting to tire of aggressive and divisive rhetoric that ends up leading precisely nowhere.
Yet, failing that, it is hard to find a credible Tory platform. They have failed to deliver their ‘do or die’ Brexit promise. Consumed with internal Brexit divisions, they have done little to build a credible domestic platform. And, so far, they have failed to provide a coherent vision of how they would transform the country for the better once freed from the shackles of EU membership.
The other option is their sudden discovery that, contrary to what they have been telling Mr Corbyn for years, a magic money tree does actually seem to exist. Promises to splash money around may appeal to some, though it isn’t clear that they can credibly out-splash Labour.
Party leadership has come to be increasingly important in UK elections. How could that play out?
Nigel Farage is a proven campaigner. Time and again, he captures the airwaves and mobilises emotion.
Jo Swinson has come out of the gates with energy, giving the Lib Dems a higher, more ‘user-friendly’ profile than they have had for some time. How she will perform in a leadership role in a general election remains to be seen.
Over the last year or so, Jeremy Corbyn seems to have transformed from Labour’s biggest asset to their main liability. Most people now believe that Labour would do better under another leader. We shall see whether Mr Corbyn can pull off the same shift in support Labour achieved through the 2017 campaign, or whether Mr Corbyn’s seeming unpopularity and his Brexit fence-sitting will make this his last election as leader.
Finally, Mr Johnson.
He seems to be the most electorally appealing of the available leaders. He is the most popular in a pantheon of unpopular leaders. He has campaigning skills. He is a world away from the wooden, introverted Theresa May. The question is whether bluster and bonhomie will be enough to get through the detailed scrutiny that an election campaign inevitably involves.
It’s all up for grabs.