Leading article

Boris is taking a huge gamble with an election – but it could pay off

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

Contrasting Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for a general election with Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance, it would be easy to assume that the result was pretty well assured: the Conservatives will win a majority. The pollsters and the bookmakers seem to concur — as they have done before misjudging the result of virtually every major election on either side of the Atlantic in the past few years. But make no mistake: the Prime Minister is taking a huge gamble in pushing for an election now.

In the Conservatives’ favour is the prospect that the resurgent Lib Dems could split the Remain vote, and that Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity seems to have reached depths seldom seen in democratic politics. Against that, the strength of the SNP has completely changed the geometry of Westminster elections. The effect of the Brexit party is also hard to predict. It is now much more difficult for any party to gain an overall majority.

Moreover, in 2017 Theresa May and many others made a near-fatal underestimation of Corbyn, who showed himself an impressive campaigner, with the ability to make extreme economic policies come across as reasonable. Momentum are well-organised and digitally adept. Two years ago, they helped Labour increase its share of the vote more than at any other postwar election. It would be madness to write Corbyn off now.

So far, the Conservatives’ case for an election seems to have focused on public discontent with the current stalemate. Give me a majority, Johnson is saying, and I will put Brexit to bed and we can all move on. The party is pinning its hopes on Labour Leave voters, with whom Johnson made common cause during the referendum campaign. They will have had enough of being told that they didn’t know what they were voting for and will dislike Labour’s proposal for a second referendum. But they’re also unsure about Tory austerity and an economic model that has left so many workers being paid less than they were before the 2008 crash.

This election campaign will be a chance to interest them in a new Conservative offering. They backed Brexit, but Theresa May never explained what Brexit was for. She saw it as a process to be endured, not a means of democratic and economic repair and renewal. Johnson is ideally placed to start a new conversation about Brexit. The formula of tax cuts, regulatory restraint and smaller government — while important — will be nowhere near enough to win a majority now.

After having endured a lost decade of flat wages, the new Tory target voters are more interested in a pay rise than a tax cut. Of course, if the economy booms and there is scope for tax cuts, low-waged workers should be first in the queue. But before that they seek improved pay, career progression and higher skills. One major reason why so many voters supported Brexit (which escaped plenty of Remain economists) was a sense that employers were importing cheap workers from across the globe rather than training people locally. Now that net migration is slowing and workers are harder to come by, employers are being forced to pay more.

Sajid Javid, the Chancellor, has pointed out the problem: the quality of economic growth matters as much as the volume of growth. Prosperity must be shared, but it’s not enough to do this using the welfare system. People who live in the Brexit-voting towns were never asking for a larger cheque from the government. They were not looking to be bought off. Instead, they wish to see their community’s prospects improved, and are interested in how Brexit might help.

The Tories have put together a convincing blue-collar agenda. The party is now working towards a £10.50 minimum wage, up from the already-high £8.21 an hour. This minimum wage is an idea that runs against classical conservative thinking: surely, it is argued, unemployment will rise once lower-skilled workers are priced out of the jobs market? But Britain’s ‘living wage’ experiment has been under way for some time now and employment is still soaring. This opens new territory for the Tories, showing that it’s possible to legislate for higher wages without upsetting the wealth-creation formula.

Theresa May tried a leftwards lurch, but miscalculated. She copied Ed Miliband’s worst ideas and ended up snarling at large companies — talking almost as if they were predators who needed workers to be foisted upon their boards. Johnson, by contrast, admires successful companies and points out that the more tax they pay, the more money the government has to invest in communities which need it most. The 2019 Tory election slogan will be to get Brexit done and then invest in police, hospitals and schools. The money for this can come from making sure Britain remains one of the best places in the world to run a company.

Get Brexit Done is a reasonable enough slogan with which to start this election campaign. But we need to know why the Conservatives want to get Brexit done; how they want to use our new-found freedom and what it can do to promote democratic and economic repair. The Tories have a good case. Now they need to make it.

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