Election preview: United Kingdom

As readers are probably aware, Britain goes to the polls tonight, in an election that is poised to solve at last the question of Brexit, if perhaps very little else.

In the last election, held just on two and a half years ago, the Conservatives lost their majority to finish with 317 of the 650 seats. They remained in government with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, which had ten seats. (Note that the number needed for a majority is a bit less than you might think, because the Speaker and the Sinn Féin MPs – of whom there are currently seven – don’t vote.)

But big things have happened in this parliament, even though it only ran for half its term. The Conservative Party has changed leaders, from Theresa May to Boris Johnson, and in the course of doing so about two dozen of its MPs left or were expelled, although some were later readmitted. The DUP also renounced its agreement with the Conservatives after Johnson’s Brexit deal promised to cut Northern Ireland loose.

Labour has not changed leaders, keeping Jeremy Corbyn after his better-than-expected performance last time. That also led to a (smaller) outflow of MPs, some of whom formed the group now known as Change UK, but its impact on the political scene has been negligible.

The Liberal Democrats, who are easily the third-largest party in terms of votes but are hugely disadvantaged by the electoral system, have changed leaders twice, with Jo Swinson now holding the job. Under her the party rose dramatically in the polls to peak at around 20%, before falling back to the low teens as the election approached.

There has been movement on the far right as well. After the collapse of the UK Independence Party vote in 2017 its founding leader, Nigel Farage, formed a new Brexit Party, which rose and fell even more spectacularly in the polls – topping 30% in the European Parliament election in May, only to decline steadily towards irrelevance as Johnson occupied most of its policy territory.

And to complete the picture, there are the non-English parts of the country, which more than ever seem like they are holding a quite separate election. The Scottish Nationalists won 35 seats last time with 3.0% of the vote (compared to the Lib Dems’ 12 from 7.4%), and will improve on that; the DUP may drop a couple of seats, particularly since its various opponents finally seem to be making an effort to combine forces against it.

Departure from the European Union remains the critical issue, but in a curiously unreal sort of way. Johnson promises to “Get Brexit done”: possible only in the narrow sense that if he wins then Britain really will leave. But the terms of its future relationship with Europe will remain a bone of contention for years to come, replaying most of the arguments of the last three years.

Corbyn, on the other hand, is committed to tearing up Johnson’s agreement and going back to the drawing board with the EU, with whatever emerges from that process to be put to a referendum in which “remain” will be an option. Outside that minimalist description, no-one knows what such a referendum will look like or what result it might produce.

So, how much of this will have an effect on how people vote tonight? Probably a lot less than was expected two or three months ago.

The trends that were already apparent in 2017 are likely to continue. The Tories will lose further ground in London and the south, to both the Lib Dems and Labour. But they will gain in the “leave”-voting areas of Labour’s northern heartland. Realignment really is happening, but only gradually.

How much they will gain is not clear. Winning seats from Labour isn’t going to be easy; few of the heartland seats are actually marginal, and their Labour voters tend to be rusted on – even if they disagree vehemently with Corbyn’s (very reluctant) pro-Europeanism.

And the Tories have the further problem that a clear win in England might not be enough, with the loss of most of their Scottish seats. The most recent polling, however, suggests that the SNP, while gaining, will not quite return to the heights of 2015, when it won 56 seats out of a possible 59.

All that said, a Conservative majority is the most likely outcome. It could still be quite a large one at that, but most forecasts are tipping something more on the small side: YouGov’s final model gives a nine point lead and a 28-seat majority.

On the other hand, if the polls are overstating the Tory vote and Johnson’s opponents manage to get the hang of tactical voting, then a Corbyn government is on the cards. Not with a majority in its own right – everyone understands that that is out of reach – but with the support of the Lib Dems and SNP, who, despite their protests, will surely go along when the alternative is an immediate Brexit.

Most intriguingly, it may be none of the above. Johnson may fail to win a majority, but so may the anti-Brexit forces, leaving the DUP and independents again with the balance of power. At that point we’re back to square one: it seems unimaginable that they could put IRA-supporter Corbyn in power, but almost as unlikely that they would reward Johnson for his betrayal of them.

And while the purge of anti-Johnson and anti-Brexit Tories has been pretty comprehensive, there will be enough of them left to be able to make trouble if Johnson’s majority can’t get above single figures.

Finally, a note for those watching from eastern Australia. British elections usually happen in the northern summer, or southern winter, so on this occasion the switch in daylight saving means that Britain is two hours further behind than usual – 11 hours rather than nine.

The peak time for results to come in is generally between about 2am and 4am in Britain, which will now be about 1pm to 3pm here. Last time around, I called the result at 5.30am London time, which was 2.30pm in Melbourne, but tomorrow it will be 4.30pm.

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