It is often remarked that generals, the bad ones at any rate, always tend to fight the last war. And then, of course, lose.
I wonder if we – the journalists, the voters, even the politicians – are making the same mistake with the British general election of 2019.
Ever since the get-go, and even now, the word you most often hear (apart from Brexit) about this contest is “unpredictable”. We’re still told that this is the most unpredictable election in years; that anything could happen; the public is volatile and undecided; there will be some wave of tactical voting to transform things; or a wave of tactical campaigning to do the same; or a “youth quake” is going to sweep away our complacent assumptions; that aggressive micro-targeted modern cyber election techniques will transform the parties’ marketing; and, of course, that the polls are all wrong and anyway, a 2017-style Corbyn surge is just around the corner.
Even if any of those things were ever true, or were ever going to be true, they are not true now. It is not 2017 all over again. We are going to get a Tory landslide. Or leastways a very decent majority, large enough for Boris Johnson to disregard not only the opposition parties, but also the European Research Group and any vestigial stirrings of pro-Remain, anti-no deal sentiment that somehow escaped his purge of the candidates’ list.
At the start of this campaign, Johnson and the Conservatives had a roughly 10-point lead over the Labour Party, and the position has held, with some squeeze on the Farageists and the Lib Dems, bar a few wibbles and wobbles, ever since. We might as well have called off all the tedious “make-or-break” leaders’ debates and photo stunts and fact-checking and just put our feet up. I’m a Celeb was more volatile and unpredictable.
It has been remarkably predictable in fact – or, more accurately, the unpredictable thing about the year 2019 was how boringly predictable it has been. Things are not, as of today, “tight”, as Laura Kuenssberg says they are. I don’t know why she says this, given all the data, but there we are.
The Tories, true enough, agree it is touch and go, but that is not because they fear not being the largest party or winning a working majority. What is touch and go is the Johnson landslide – the thing he most prizes but dare not speak of.
In other words, the Conservatives want to scare people, especially Brexit Party voters and Labour Leavers, into giving them a landslide – a 100 plus majority. Labour also talks up how easily they could deprive the Tories of their majority (as in 2017), for similar reasons – to gather momentum. The Lib Dems try to make out they are still on track to hold the balance of power, as they fantasised when Jo Swinson made her historic blunder of granting Johnson his early election.
The more we look at it, the more the 2017 contest was sui generis, a reflection of Theresa May’s extraordinarily poor campaign, and we are now witnessing a reversion to an older norm. Almost every election since the Second World War has been characterised by two things: that the polls hardly shift during the campaign and, closely connected, that all the noise and tumult is mere background. People make their minds up years before.
The truth, I suppose, is that we have been in a virtual non-stop election campaign ever since the inconclusive 2017 poll. The voters are well aware of the personalities and arguments. Johnson and Sturgeon have been around for years and we are familiar with them; Corbyn is no longer this slightly startling man of principle: the more we have come to know him, the dodgier some of his views have become. Swinson, meantime, has pulled off the remarkable trick of growing less impressive the more the public see of her, whereas Sturgeon, Angela Rayner, Caroline Lucas and Rebecca Long-Bailey have been stars in a lacklustre scene.
Most people in this country can barely remember a Tory government with a parliamentary majority big enough for it to do whatever it liked. Many were not even born. It was last seen at the 1987 election, when Margaret Thatcher won her third contest with a majority of 102. I predict the same this time, even given all the social changes over the past 30 years. In which case, you should get used to the idea of a Johnson-led government of cronies and toadies.
Among other things they will: preside over a protracted post-Brexit recession; a collapse in sterling; starve local services and the welfare state of funding when the comprehensive spending review comes round; fail to conclude a trade deal with the EU in time; fail to negotiate an advantageous trade deal with anyone else including (especially) Trump’s protectionist America by 2024; dismantle the constitutional checks and balances supplied by the Commons and the courts, as per page 48 of the Tory manifesto; shut down Channel 4; neuter the BBC; cut taxes for the rich; pack the House of Lords with more Tories and appoint placemen and placewomen to top jobs in the civil service, diplomatic corps, Bank of England and quangos; privatise anything not specifically ruled out by their manifesto.
It is not, then, only the election campaign that is quite stunningly predictable and an easy win for the Tories; but the course of the next five years of the Johnson administration as well. It feels, for those of us who lived through it, very much like the 1980s – a divided centre-left opposition facing a determined Tory PM, who uses their powers as if an elected dictator. You have been warned.