Has there ever been an election that either side wanted less?
Half of the parliamentary Labour Party lobbied their whips not to let Jeremy Corbyn support a snap poll. Many Conservative MPs are unhappy at Downing Street’s push for an election when parliament has finally given qualified support for a Brexit deal.
Two parties split down the middle by Brexit now step fearfully into a campaign destined to become a referendum on Brexit by proxy. But, as with the 2016 referendum itself, the outcome is unlikely to deliver a clear judgment on the UK’s future, in or out of the EU.
Instead, a cold and wet December election will probably turn into a weary protest from a fed-up electorate. As one Conservative minister explained to me: “People won’t be voting on whether they’re for or against Brexit. They’ll be voting on how much they dislike the current state of politics.”
The blame will fall mainly on the two biggest parties and their unpopular leaders. That helps explain why the only real enthusiasm for going to the polls can be found among the SNP and Lib Dems, who have manoeuvred Labour into granting this election and who will claim to offer an alternative to yet more chaos.
Polling guru Professor Sir John Curtice predicted yesterday that the vote will break a record, producing the largest cohort in parliament outside Labour or the Conservatives. The nationalists are expected to gain ground in Scotland, while the Lib Dems could be on course to return their highest ever number of MPs. “We could have more than 100 MPs that do not belong to either of the other two parties,” Prof Curtice told LBC radio.
With a Brexit betrayal narrative and a sizeable poll lead, the Conservatives ought to have a clear road map to victory – but that path is narrow. The Tories are set to be squeezed in London, university towns and urban commuter belts across the UK by the Lib Dems. Boris Johnson’s broken “do or die” pledge means added pressure from the Brexit Party everywhere.
Like Theresa May tried to do in 2017, the Tories’ only option is to take Labour on in its post-industrial northern English heartlands: places like Castleford and Pontefract, Wrexham and Blackpool. By ditching former chancellor Philip Hammond’s fiscal straitjacket, Mr Johnson has closed the ideological gap with Labour on spending. But as in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn can be expected bring renewed energy to an election campaign, and will cast his opponent as privileged and out of touch with the communities the Tories most need to appeal to.
It could all add up to another hung parliament, albeit one where many of the figures who led the opposition to a no-deal scenario are absent, particularly on the Tory benches. MPs return with six weeks until the next deadline, and Christmas in between. We’re only at the start of the Brexit winter.