The US presidential election currently sits on a knife’s edge. It could go either way, and if you were in Trump’s camp right now, you might be justified in feeling optimistic. It wasn’t supposed to be this way – the polls yesterday had Biden up nine points nationally, and ahead in almost every major battleground state. But it could have real repercussions for British politics. When the dust settles – regardless of whether Biden or Trump is declared the eventual winner – this result should be very good news for Boris Johnson. Not because of Brexit or US-UK relations, but because of something much more basic and long term.
First of all, let’s address the polling issue. Pollsters haven't had the easiest decade – they've suffered substantial abuse and been constantly told their predictions were wrong. In 2016, pollsters were widely lambasted for their ‘errors’, despite predicting that Hillary Clinton would win the popular vote by three points, and which she ended up winning by two. The polls also caught the electorate’s slide away from Clinton and towards Trump in the final week. However, even the staunchest upholder of polling’s honour will struggle to defend what happened last night. Even if the polls had been out by the largest margin of error imaginable, this still should have been a Biden blowout, particularly given how close some of the states have been. The polls were catastrophically wrong this time in a way that will be hard for them to bounce back from.
This alone could help Boris. Labour have a ten-point lead? Biden had nine and look what happened there, Johnson’s defenders will be able to say. On a night when Trump was expected to not only lose but be crushed, having run a terrible campaign in the midst of a financial meltdown and an unprecedented public health crisis, the incumbent is within a whisker of victory. The populism that looked to be consigned to history by a Biden victory instead appears to have nine lives.
It’s been a tough year for the Prime Minister, with the Covid crisis taking the shine off of him to a large extent. He’s suddenly seemed the wrong man for the wrong moment, and there have been rumours that he will either walk away or be asked to go by his MPs. Yet last night’s events could be the harbinger of a return to at least partial glory for Boris. Having watched what Trump pulled off – and whether he wins or loses, just the fact that he defied the odds to such an extraordinary degree will be enough – Tory MPs will be mindful of what Boris Johnson electorally achieved in December, and more importantly, could come to believe that he could pull it off again in a few years’ time.
There is another grand prize waiting if the Tories can repeat their 2019 general election success. If Trump does end up winning, the American left will most likely follow all of its worst instincts, embedding further all of the reasons they lost this time round. The culture war stuff that dragged the left down, that Biden was always running away from, it seems will almost certainly be dialled up again. British Tories will be watching with interest.
If Boris Johnson can defeat Starmer at the next general election it seems likely that the far left will gain control over Labour once again. Win the next general election, therefore, and the Tories could look to win the next several contests on the trot.
Trump's performance yesterday makes all of this feel suddenly much more possible for the Conservative party. And Boris becomes an indelible part of the whole plan once again – he’s the one Tory who’s managed to ride the populist wave successfully already and might well be able to do it again. Trump’s victory or near-victory will remind the parliamentary Conservative party of all of the reasons they voted to make Boris Johnson leader last year – and possibly keep it in their minds for the foreseeable future.
For those hoping that yesterday would ring in a new era, the presidential election was a crushing disappointment, whomever wins at this stage. If Biden is the victor, it will be a minor relief, but the damage has been done. Populism isn’t dying as much as getting a second wind – and Boris Johnson is well placed to benefit from it.
Now listen to Coffee House Shots. Cindy Yu, James Forsyth and Katy Balls discuss whether the government should take a stance on the US election.