Sketchy Politics: the extinction election?


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I think we should do it again.

OK.

What’s that? OK it’s Sketchy Politics, and it’s the, potentially, extinction election.

We’re in the middle section of this election campaign. It’s all kicking off. And I thought we might try and place what’s going on on what I’m going to call the axis of upheaval.

Oh, I like that That’s very good – axis of upheaval.

Axis of upheaval.

I like that.

Because some people said this is going to be a really boring election campaign because it’s a foregone conclusion. Ah, ah, ah.

In one sense, it’s a foregone conclusion.

Right?

And Labour are running a boring campaign quite intentionally, and it’s working for them. But everybody else – very exciting. It’s rather like being on a roller coaster with Ed Davey, in fact.

And here he is, Ed Davey, one of the people we’re going to try and place. So essentially, here we have Keir Starmer. And you’ve written, he’s kind of bestriding the centre ground like a colossus.

Like the colossus he isn’t.

Like the colossus he isn’t, exactly, because he’s been left all this space while there’s this massive fight going on the right. Do you want to just talk us through that? Because since we last spoke we’ve had Nigel Farage decide that he wants to play after all, and to take over.

So I think there are two different dynamics here. The first one, as you correctly said, is that Nigel Farage and the Reform party have stormed into this campaign. Previously, you had Richard Tice, who had done a totally workmanlike job, but they weren’t capturing the imagination. Reform had done quite well in the polls, but they were stuck. Nigel Farage literally came back in, said, no, I’m taking over as leader, and I’m standing for parliament and didn’t even bother telling Richard Tice about a day and a half before it happened.

We’ve all had bosses like that, by the way.

Well, that is true. And he has stormed back in, and Reform has clearly had a bit of a bump in the polls. It’s interesting. We’re not quite clear if that’s sticking. Then you’ve got Rishi Sunak, who we’d put in the centre-right of the political spectrum. But he has got all these voices saying to him, you cannot let Reform… you cannot be out-righted.

This is what happened to the left. You can’t let the vote be divided. You’ve got to get close to them. You’ve basically got to become the full Farage. There’s people of his party who would like Nigel Farage back in the party. And there’s a couple of Conservative candidates, I think, even putting pictures of Farage rather than Sunak on their leaflets, which is amazing. Suella Braverman talking very positively about him.

But there’s an interesting argument and one that I think will probably be more important after the election than now, which is, are the Tories in trouble because they’ve not been Conservative enough? And these bunch of proper Conservatives are in there taking… or is it just that people think they’ve been completely useless, they’ve let them down in numerous ways, had lockdown parties, and Liz Truss and everything else?

And actually, it’s got nothing to do with ideology. It’s got to do with the fact that they’ve been in power for 14 years. People don’t feel better off. Nothing seems to work. And that’s the real issue. Nevertheless, you can see the fracture. The worse the Conservative party does, the more these people are empowered.

We’ve got reform, the many-headed Reform here…

Yes.

And we’ve got people like Suella Braverman to the right of Rishi Sunak saying, let’s do some sort of deal. I mean, clearly, in 2019 there was a deal.

Yeah.

Reform stood down in some seats.

As the Brexit party, yeah.

As the Brexit party, their predecessor incarnation. And that hugely helped. But here it’s more sort of what happens after an election.

I mean, let’s be clear. This has been going on since Nigel Farage’s first party, the Ukip, the UK Independence party. Because, essentially, as they began to take more and more votes off the Conservatives, the Conservatives panicked and said, no, no, no, we must close this gap. And they became more and more eurosceptic, until the point where they promised a Brexit referendum…

Dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, da.

…to get rid of them. And there is a serious issue, which they’re right to think about,which is don’t let the right vote get split. If you add up the opinion poll ratings – you can take this with a pinch of salt – the opinion poll ratings of the Conservative party and Reform, Conservatives are on somewhere in the low 20s. Reform are varying around 15 per cent, 17 per cent something like that. Well, all of a sudden, that’s quite a respectable vote share if they all went together, now, which, of course, they don’t.

But you get to sort of, like, what, between 25 per cent, 30 per cent, 35 per cent of the electorate?

Well, theoretically.

Theoretically.

That would assume that all those Reform voters…

I mean, it’s theoretical.

…would vote Conservative, when, in fact, a lot of them are just angry, disaffected protest voters. Obviously…

Well, and we should point out that there’s also some of the Tory vote here towards the centre who would never vote for Reform, either.

The big tent isn’t as big as it once was and that, actually, there’s a whole chunk here who will either switch to Labour, or to the Liberal Democrats, or will drift away and not vote because this tent looks a little bit too right-wing for them.

So you get some people peeling off here to Labour. Let’s put Ed Davey in his sort of watery…

OK.

Look, Ed, you don’t fit on your watery stunt thing. I’m going to put you here. Ed Davey goes here. So you get some centrist Tories peeling off to Labour, some peeling off to the Lib Dems. And then you’ve got…

Some not voting.

Yes, some staying at home, quite a lot at the moment peeling off to the right, right?

Well, that’s the big, long-term question, isn’t it, for the Conservative party is, OK, you could move to reunite the right now or after the election. And there’s a good reason to do that electorally. But the question is, can you do it in a way that doesn’t lose all these people and gets them back?

Or are we, as some on the right, like Nigel Farage, would like to claim, in one of those moments where the whole of the right is realigning and becoming a different force and that you can build a majority that way because everything we know so far suggests Nigel Farage is a deeply unpopular character. He has a core of support, but he can’t get beyond it and that he puts a ceiling on how far that group of people can go in the electorate.

And this is also because of first past the post, where you have to, under our electoral system, you have to build this wide coalition to form a government that gets you up to, what, about 40 per cent of the electorate.

Exactly.

Without that, you can’t actually win a general election. So this activity that’s sort of dragging the Tory party rightwards – here we have Keir Starmer here on centre-left.

And this, I think, is the excitement of the election.

Oh, my goodness, yes.

Everything else is playing out as we sort of expect it to and quite quietly. This is where all the drama is.

We’ve got Ed Davey with his kind of stunts creeping up in the polls, as well, which means more seats peeling off the Tory party 2019 majority.

We’re in the unusual and happy place for Labour, where sometimes the Lib Dems can take votes away from Labour, and the historic split on the left, which Tony Blair always used to talk about, keeping the left out of power for so long. But sometimes they play a virtuous role for them. And this is one of those occasions, where most of their threat is to the Conservative party seats. Them doing well…

There’s only one seat, actually. There’s sort of an electoral curiosity – Sheffield Hallam, which is –

Well, they think Wimbledon, as well. They do.

That’s slightly different, I think. So Sheffield Hallam was Nick Clegg’s seat. And so there’s a sort of weird grudge match between Labour and the Lib Dems in that one seat in Yorkshire. I’m glad you mentioned Wimbledon because that is one of the very few places where this useful complementarity, where there are some seats that are clearly Lib Dem challenge to the Tories, some seats, most of the seats very clearly are Labour challenge to the Tories.

There’s a couple of places where, is it the party that was in second place in 2019? Is it the party that seems stronger now? And so Wimbledon: the Lib Dems and Labour are battling it out to see who’s the real challenger. And that could let the Tory candidate back in. But…

ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: It could. The Tories probably would have lost Wimbledon a bit earlier. But A, they had an MP who a lot of the residents liked. B, Labour faded away under Corbyn. Labour were the challengers in Wimbledon for a very long time rather than the Lib Dems.

But what you’ve now got is this whole area of southwest London and heading into Surrey where the Lib Dems have three seats now, and you can easily see the yellow tentacles spreading deeper and deeper into this part of London – the ultimate gentrification. You get yourself a Gails and then you get a Lib Dem MP, and your area is really moving up in the world.

They call it the Surrey Shuffle, actually…

The Surrey Shuffle. I like that.

…because it’s all of the kind of middle-class graduates who can’t afford London house prices, essentially, when they start to start a family. And they move out into the stockbroker belt, the commuter belt, and hey presto, the nature of the seat…

Although, I have to say, I think people who say that have got no idea what house prices are like in Surrey, either.

In Surrey, no, good point. So just to complete our axis of upheaval, we’ve also got a bit of activity here on the left. We’ve got the Green party, who are doing better than they usually do. And whereas the pollsters usually say, that will all just go back into the Labour column on polling day, this time, slightly different.

They’ve got one MP at the moment. Maybe they’ll get two, even three. That would be quite a change. And then we’ve got George Galloway and his Workers party over to the left, as well.

And…

Yeah?

We’ve got Jeremy Corbyn standing as Independent Islington. We’ve got another Labour MP who was brutally deselected a day before nominations basically closed who’s standing against the Labour party in Woodford and Chingford, I think. There’s a few of those.

And a right old mess in Leicester East…

Yes, absolutely.

…where there are, I think, two Independent candidates who could take votes off the Labour party.

And I think what’s interesting here…

There’s a funny bit of activity on the left.

And I think what’s interesting is that, if this election were closer I think all these people would be wiped out because people who wanted the end of the Tories would all congeal around the Labour. They’ll cohere around Labour and go, we just have to vote Labour.

No, I liked congeal. Let’s say they’re going to congeal.

Congeal around Labour. But because everything is telling voters that Labour is going to win by a mile, some of them will feel they’ve got permission to vote Green, to vote Corbyn in Islington, and others like that. One of the striking things is the similarity between the Galloway on the left and the Farage parties on the right and that, actually, they find an awful lot of common ground, in many ways, because they are fairly authoritarian, Putin-sympathising, really hard-line parties.

I do not have room here to draw the…

To draw the full circle?

…the horseshoe effect, which is what they call it, when the right and the far left sort of meet round behind the centrist sensibles.

And of course, Galloway was a Brexit supporter.

Just to finish this, I think you are absolutely right. I think that a lot of the discussions about whether the ideological positioning of Rishi Sunak is correct to see off the Reform threat, the Labour threat, the Lib Dem threat, even the Green threat in one seat that the Greens are targeting in Suffolk, is all completely by the by. It’s a question of Rishi Sunak being punished by the electorate for 14 years of a Conservative government and a sort of punishment for what’s seen as incompetent rule rather than any ideological argument.

And the polls are showing them at levels you and I can probably never remember them being at. They’re in the 20s. That’s extraordinary. And so they’re just getting clobbered.

OK, the next thing I want to do is, what do we think the House of Commons benches are going to look like? Because given the scale of the madness in the opinion polls – you’ve got your Labour pen – there might be so many Labour MPs that they’re kind of off the government benches. And then you’ve got maybe, what, a rump Tory party here.

Well, I mean, and there are even people who are, with a degree of mockery, saying, well, what about if the Lib Dems are the second biggest party in the parliament now rather than the Tories? Difficult to believe, but nonetheless, we are seeing a scale of Tory implosion we haven’t seen before.

There comes a point where you have to start taking these opinion polls seriously, and the opinion polls certainly are talking about the Tories getting below 100 seats. Now, an element of me – mainly just because I’ve been here so long and it’s never happened – is saying, well, no, I think surely, by the end, people won’t want to see such a total Labour majority that the Tory vote will snap back a bit.

But there’s no rules that say it has to. There’s nothing that says it has to happen that way. There’s nothing that says, if they’re on 20 odd per cent three weeks out from polling day, that they are definitely going to claw it back.

You’re supposed to be colouring that in red. What’s gone wrong?

Oh, I’m sorry.

Now, what do you think about these theories of the implications of such an enormous Labour majority? Because what we’re seeing is the Conservative party trying to start a kind of scare campaign to get some of those lost Tory voters back into the fold by saying…

Which I think is a good tactic.

Do you?

Yes, I do.

OK.

I think what they’re saying, basically, is, look, we’ve lost.

Don’t them him all of this. Bless them.

I think, given where they are in the polls, given they’re not getting any traction, Rishi Sunak is not winning voters round. What have they got left in their locker? They’ve tried: ‘You can’t trust Labour. You’ve got to be scared of them,’ and that hasn’t quite worked.

So the only thing they’ve got left is: ‘Do you actually want Labour so powerful it can do whatever it likes? Don’t you want at least a decent-sized opposition to keep them honest, to keep them in check?’ I think there are wavering Tory voters, people who are basically fed up with the Tories, not bothered about Starmer coming in, for whom that has some appeal.

If you can imagine them saying, look, imagine what he’s going to do with the majority of way over 100. He can put your taxes up, inheritance taxes. Look what he’s doing to private schools. He’ll go after you, rich people.

And you can see how that argument can get traction. And, also, they’ll say, look, if he’s got more than 400 MPs, for the sake of argument, the real power are going to be all these left-wing MPs not in government demanding more things from him. They’re going to be the opposition. It’s going to be in his own party. You actually need some opposition there to stop him. And I can see that’s a decent argument.

And do you think that there was enough fodder for this argument, this scare tactic in the Labour manifesto?

No, not in the manifesto. By the way, is it just is the poster for Trainspotting, isn’t it? Choose life, choose Labour. And you thought it looked like…

Well, somebody rather brilliantly said, it’s Tony Blair, but sadder…

Sadder and older.

…which is actually fantastic. Now, the one thing I haven’t done is put Reform UK on the opposition benches. But what do you think? Do you think there will be Nigel Farage sitting in the House of Commons?

I have to think there’s a chance. I mean, I don’t think he’d stand if he didn’t think there was a very good chance of winning. Clacton is the only place that elected in a general election what was then a Ukip MP – Douglas Carswell, who’d left the Conservatives and held the seat in the general election.

It’s on the Essex coast. It’s very Brexity, incredibly high proportion of leavers and of people in older age groups.

I mean, I think Reform’s share of the vote, whatever it is, will not be reflected in the number of seats in parliament. We know that. We know that, for a breakthrough party: the SDP got within a point or two of the Labour party in 1983 and didn’t come anywhere near them in seats.

Which, I suppose, brings you back to the question mark over whether a rump Tory party goes to the right and makes some sort of arrangement with Nigel Farage. I did hear a very funny interview with Nigel Farage in which he said: but if the Tory party is down to 100 MPs, and you win a seat or even two, could you bear to be leader of the Conservative party? And he sort of said, well, if called upon to serve.

If my country…

What’s bad about that offer if you’re Nigel Farage? Nothing.

I think there are two parts to it. Whether they would actually go to Farage and say, come on now, Nigel, lead us, I’m pretty sceptical. But what I think they would try and do is absorb Farage-ism, and they would try and take the policies and the ideas.

And you could just imagine… in opposition, life is so much easier. You can be so much more pure in your politics. You have a Labour government. It’s pushing on with its net-zero policies. It’s so much easier for the Tories to congeal around opposition to them.

So they’ll be tough on immigration. They’ll be tough on climate change policies. They’ll find it very easy to take a harder line. And the challenge for them is not going so far into that hard line that they alienate people they need to win back.

Starmer has promised to do nothing about raising VAT, income tax, national insurance, corporation tax.

That’s correct.

But there could be some other things they do that might give fodder to the opposition, do you think? The Green agenda.

They could raise capital gains tax. They haven’t ruled out something on inheritance tax down the line. They haven’t ruled out pensions relief. They’ve been a bit vague on whether they would see a council tax revaluation, which is long overdue, but would obviously cost people in bigger houses a lot of money.

But there are some radical policies, right? Renationalising the railways… if we weren’t expecting it…

This is a really good point.

…a huge, new body, GB Energy, it’s because it sort of priced in IN the jargon. But actually, some of this stuff they’re offering as a transformation, and these are big policies.

Yeah. I mean, I think this is how politics should be. I don’t think there should be big surprises in manifestos. I think you should have been making your argument for a long time before you get to the manifesto day. But you’re right. They’ve got big stuff on the environment – this new company to oversee clean energy in which the state will have a stake in other companies.

As you say, on the railways, they’ve got workers’ rights rules, which are quite a big deal in terms of people’s rights at work. There are quite a lot of things the Labour party is going to do, which, as you say, if you heard it for the first time, you’d think was fairly radical. But actually, they’ve done quite a good job of socialising their socialism.

Now, something that they have pledged to do is to relax the planning laws to get a lot of housebuilding going on. Now, it seems to me that is one way they can, as you’ve argued a lot in your columns, show that they’re actually delivering almost immediately. But it seems to me that does also open up a dynamic here because rump Tory party MPs, certainly Lib Dem MPs, even Greens, could go very Nimby on them on the opposition benches. But with this sort of majority…

Well, that is what oppositions do. I mean, absolutely… that they pick at people over planning. But I mean, it’s very clear that things just don’t get done in Britain. Big rail projects, big housing projects, nuclear, all the things that the country needs in terms of infrastructure are not happening, mostly because of the planning rules. And so there clearly needs to be a major reform of planning regulation to allow things of strategic importance to just get pushed through more rapidly.

How quickly that really materialises… I mean, I think it’s the right thing to do. And if it happens it will be one of the great achievements of a Labour government. But this is not something that’s going to change everything in the first year, is it?

Well, no, but I know you’ve been arguing that they need to prove delivery quite fast because of these threats to the right and the left. And I’ve come up with what I think the Labour party should pay me a lot of money for, which is a new slogan: move fast and build things.

Move fast and build things is undoubtedly the right slogan.

Get the economy moving and get growth because that’s what it’s all got to be about.

And one of the fundamental points is the UK has become less attractive for foreign investment. If people start seeing infrastructure being built, things being built, the country appearing to be moving again, then we could be in a different game.

So just to finish off, I’m going to then put it to you that what we could be seeing is something that is even more consequential than 1997, which is the biggest landslide that we remember because, in 1997…

Of course, I remember 1983, myself.

Oh, OK, OK. Interesting. So in 1997, overnight, there was this wonderful, wonderful moment when the great psephologist Anthony King said, landslide is too weak a term for this. What we’ve got coming towards us is the equivalent of an asteroid, electorally, that is going to wipe out all human life on Earth.

And it seems to me that what the polls are saying is there is an incoming asteroid, and it’s a sort of extinction-level event, potentially, for my little Tory dinosaur.

Torysaurus.

The Torysaurus – thank you very much. Do you believe this?

Well, I mean, actually, what happened in 1997 wasn’t close to what the polls are telling us is going to happen this time. Labour are much, much further back now than they were in ’97 when it was virtually a hung parliament by the time of the general election. The polls are persistently telling us that the Tories are going to be in double figures. And even if you think, well, that’s a bit extreme, and actually they’ll be in 100 and something, that’s an unbelievable level of defeat for the Conservatives.

And we can all look at this and go, well, there’s three weeks. Surely the Tory vote will pick up a bit. Surely Reform won’t destroy them that much. But everything we’re seeing in the opinion polls is telling us that we should believe this is possible. And if the Conservative party isn’t wiped out at this general election, then the UK polling industry probably is going to be because they will have called it so badly wrong.

Well, I suppose we’re going to have to wait and see if, on July the 4th, we actually end up with this extinction-level event for the Conservative party.

You see, if we if we were a high-quality production outfit, we would fade out with the music of Jurassic Park playing over the top of us, but we’ll probably have to hum it instead. Duh, duh, duh, duh, duh.

Well, anyway, if you’re a Conservative MP, don’t look up.



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