A general election is called and in a matter of hours a neutral and unbiased BBC presenter has likened our Prime Minister to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Governments rise and governments fall, but some things stay just as they always were. It was Eddie Mair on Radio 4’s PM programme who made the comparison, while interviewing the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. In fairness to Mair, he had been alluding to Theresa May’s apparent wish to create ‘unity’ within Westminster, a truly stupid statement within an address which sometimes made no semantic sense and sounded, to my ears, petulant and arrogant. Then along came the opinion pollsters to tell us exactly what will happen on 8 June — except they declined to be too explicit. Having miscalled Brexit, Trump and Cameron’s victory in 2015, this time they restrained themselves to pointing out that Theresa May has a large lead in the polls, but that polls can ‘sometimes be wrong’.
It was at this moment that I suddenly decided that this snap election was going to be rather good fun, on account of the number of people it might confound. It may be that Theresa May has wonderful personal ratings and her party is miles ahead of the inept and fractious rabble which currently goes under the name Labour, but this may be an election for the counter-intuitive among us. Unexpected things are likely to happen.
The first is that the Tories will lose a sackful of seats. It may well be that they end up capturing one or two more than they lose, but lose seats they certainly will. There are 26 Conservative seats in Greater London and they are not all in the taxi-driver belt or the stockbroker belt. If this election really is about Brexit and public unanimity on the issue, which is what May seemed to be suggesting, they have about as much hope of retaining Battersea and Hendon (and many others besides) as I do of mounting Michael Heseltine and winning the Grand National. It is certainly true that a good many Remainers have had more than enough of the desperate bleatings and whining from the European Union’s most clingy and prolix supporters over here: the country has, in general, accustomed itself to Brexit and is so far relieved that virtually none of the annihilations predicted to befall us have occurred. But there is still a pretty fanatical anti-Brexit rump in some of our major cities, and especially London — as we saw with the Richmond Park by-election. Many people in our cities are more stridently anti-Brexit than they are pro-Conservative.
So where will Theresa May pick up seats? Only beyond the cities, and the Tories hold most of those seats anyway. Perhaps there are a few to be gained in the north and the Midlands, in frowsy, dispossessed towns where Ukip have performed well (and yes, it’s goodnight from them, too, one suspects). But surely nowhere near enough to give Theresa May the sort of majority she craves. There may be a handful — six or so — to be wrested from Nicola Sturgeon’s strange, prosthetic titanium limbs, north of the border. But again, it is comparatively small pickings.
Then there is Labour. I yield to nobody in my contempt, bordering on loathing, for the perpetually active, psychotically obsessive alliance of grim-faced 1970s Trots and deluded middle-class infants who have taken over my party, and I am well aware that their policies are attractive to only about 15 per cent of the electorate, if that. But an awful lot of Labour seats, particularly in the north, are still tribally Labour and almost unassailable. The Labour vote holds up beyond the Severn-Trent, as we saw in Stoke. Nor does the negative ‘Corbyn Factor’ play terribly strongly there — I see no evidence that northern voters find him any more unpalatable than they did Ed Miliband. The two men are two sides of the same coin: aloof, poncey, left-wing Londoners. It is to the party that these voters feel an allegiance, not the leader. That and a resolve never, ever to vote Tory. Further, the two big issues in the north were immigration and public services. Labour wins on the second issue. On the first it is pretty much a dead heat. So, though it will disappoint my former colleagues from more pragmatic positions within the party, I do not quite see the wipeout of Labour that many of them are yearning for. And I’ll bet they pick up a few seats in London.
I mentioned here ages ago that the Lib Dems were on the cusp of a major revival. I based this not so much on the Richmond Park by-election, but on their performance in a handful of council seats towards the end of last year. But look now at the vast constituency they have in front of them. Not just all of those who want Brexit stopped right now or at the least ameliorated, although that is a pretty big well from which to draw one’s bucket — but also the anti-Tory protest votes from those people who find Corbyn ludicrous beyond measure. If the anti--Brexit campaign really kicks into gear, the only winners are the Liberal Democrats, despite possessing a leader with the sparkling allure of a Methodist Church Hall in Bishop Auckland in late November. And many of those Liberal Democrat gains will come at the expense of the Conservatives.
My guess for the election is that the Tories will increase their majority, but not by very much. The Lib Dems will gain a dozen or so seats. Labour will suffer, but not as much as its most sensible members wish it to suffer. The Scottish Nationalists will retreat a little, but not enough to dampen Sturgeon’s odious spite. And we may be left roughly where we were. Not much of a greater mandate for Theresa May.
James Forsyth discusses the snap election with Bobby Duffy from Ipsos MORI and Richard Angell from Progress: