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PERSPECTIVE

GE a massive roll of the dice for Johnson

British PM may want the ballot on Dec 12 badly but it is a huge gamble and could easily backfire.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walking towards a polling station during the Brexit referendum in North London, Britain, June 23, 2016. Mr Johnson perceives his best opportunity to win an electoral mandate is to go to the polls as early as possible, and try to outflank opposition parties with a claim to being the competent leadership to oversee the UK's planned departure from the EU.

THE UK House of Commons will vote on Monday on whether to hold the nation's first pre-Christmas general election since 1923. While Boris Johnson badly wants the ballot on Dec 12, it is a huge gamble and could easily backfire given the exceptional unpredictability of modern UK politics.

This latest remarkable situation in Parliament comes as Mr Johnson's promise to leave the EU by Oct 31, "do or die", has now vapourised. He is therefore looking to deflect this political embarrassment by seeking to act decisively, and in turn trying to head off an electoral challenge from the hard-line Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage for the allegiances of the bloc of 2016 referendum "Leave" voters.

Mr Johnson's decision represents a massive "roll of the dice" on at least three levels. And to this end, the Cabinet was reportedly deeply split on Thursday over the wisdom of his decision, remembering the way that Theresa May's big polling lead in 2017 almost went into reverse during a see-saw campaign.

The first level of uncertainty is over whether Mr Johnson can feasibly get his wish for a snap ballot passed on Monday, without a House of Commons majority, given the need for two thirds support for his proposal. Already, many Liberal Democrat, Green, and Labour MPs have said they are against such an election until a "no-deal Brexit" is taken off the table by the ruling Conservatives.

Secondly, there is a good reason why UK governments have not for almost a century held a December election. That is, in large part, due to the winter weather which will probably depress turnout, bringing further unpredictability to the poll outcome if it goes ahead.

A third level of uncertainty is well documented in new data from the British Election Study (BES) released earlier this month. That is, the currently unprecedented UK voter volatility right now stemming from a series of "electoral shocks", from Brexit to the aftermath of the 2008-09 international financial crisis, and the aftermath of the 2015 Scottish referendum.

The BES, which is perhaps the most authoritative survey of UK voting behaviour with its large 30,000-person online "panel", indicates how much voters are increasingly influenced by such key "shocks" that at least potentially re-align the political landscape. And given this fluidity, traditional partisan voting patterns are eroding faster.

To be sure, the traditional two-party system has long been in decline. In the period from 1945 to 1970, for instance, Labour and Tories collectively averaged in excess of 90 per cent of the vote, and also the seats won, in the eight British general elections held in this period. Yet, from 1974 to 2005, the average share of the vote won by them fell significantly in the subsequent nine UK general elections.

What has happened since then, however, is generally even greater voter de-alignment and volatility. Take the example of the UK's 2015 and 2017 general elections which saw more people change their vote than ever before in the post-war era, with nearly half the country (49 per cent) voting for different parties across the three elections from 2010-17, according to BES.

A key part of the reason behind this is the erosion of the classical left-right dichotomy in distinguishing Conservative from Labour voters. Indeed, the BES study asserts that, for the first time in modern UK history, the 2017 election saw issues including immigration and Europe/EU at least equally as important in determining overall voting behaviour as traditional right-left party allegiances.

In 2017, there was therefore the highest levels of switching between the Conservatives and Labour since the BES started its research in 1964. This phenomenon was almost certainly prompted by Brexit with Labour winning the support of almost a third (31 per cent) of previous Tory voters because of its more pro-EU stance, and the Conservatives winning the loyalties of significant numbers of pro-Leave former Labour supporters.

Mr Johnson's election game plan for Dec 12 - should he have the opportunity to pursue it - is to frame the election as much as possible around Brexit, as was Mrs May's in 2017. He perceives his best opportunity to win an electoral mandate is to go to the polls as early as possible, and try to outflank opposition parties with a claim to being the competent leadership to oversee the UK's planned departure from the EU.

Yet, this strategy could easily backfire if much of the electorate does not share his assumptions on Brexit, or sees the ballot through a wider prism of issues such as the economy, the National Health Service, and/or "law and order". Were this to happen, as the Opposition Labour Party will encourage, Mr Johnson will not be able to fight on his chosen terrain, as was Mrs May's Achilles heel in 2017.

And there is also the possibility, in a several-week election campaign, that Mr Johnson may make a series of gaffes or unwise decisions under pressure, as he has done before. While he appears to be a significantly more natural political campaigner than Mrs May, he remains untested in the intensity of a general election campaign.

If the election does go ahead and the issues shift beyond Brexit, the prime minister will have been relieved by the fact that the House of Commons on Thursday backed the government's Queen's Speech by a majority of 16. This is the forward-looking programme of legislation that the Johnson team would look to implement in coming years with key themes including health, education, transport and crime.

The reason why Labour would like the election terrain to focus on this wider agenda is the backstory of significant public sector cuts that have taken place in the United Kingdom since the international financial crisis which is widely seen as the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. On the law and order agenda, for instance, the party has long campaigned for the re-recruitment of around 20,000 police officer positions which were cut back over the last decade, an agenda Mr Johnson now appears to share too.

It is in this cauldron of uncertainty that the forthcoming election will be fought. Whether it comes in December or 2020, the ballot is not straightforward to forecast, with Mr Johnson potentially proving to be its victim rather than beneficiary, as was the case with Mrs May in 2017.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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