Defining moments can make or break an election campaign. One has just exploded over the credibility of Jeremy Corbyn in the most unsparing Andrew Neil TV interview yet.
Another one, primed to explode, is the credibility of the Conservative slogan: “Get Brexit Done”. And with two weeks still to go – and time for more Defining Moments to play mayhem with opinion poll predictions - there is everything still to win and lose.
Seldom has an election campaign been fought amid such a minefield. Conservatives are counting on the Corbyn personality issue to be the decider on December 12. The Andrew Neil interrogation not only exposed the Labour leader for his refusal to apologise for anti-Semitism, but also that Labour’s pledge to compensate millions of women hit by the state pension age rise at a cost of £58 billion has not been provided for in its manifesto costings.
Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, says it “drives coach and horses” through its spending plans and that the pledge would lead to “another £12 billion of borrowing every year for the next five years” on top of what Labour has already promised to spend. The IFS has previously labelled Labour’s plans to raise £80 billion of tax revenue through increased contributions from companies and the top five per cent of earners as “not credible”.
Given this contingent threat of hefty tax rises, the Conservatives hope a rising tide of anti-Corbyn voter paranoia and further attrition of support for Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats will carry them aloft to an overall majority. Never mind Brexit: At the final hurdle, it will be ABC: Anyone But Corbyn.
Yet this may be too complacent by half. For however hopelessly unaffordable and unrealistic the Labour manifesto may seem, there are millions who will find it attractive. Which household does not like the idea of free broadband to every town and village across the country? Or pay rises for lower earners and fewer working hours? Or the NHS suffused with a massive increase in funds? The energy giants and utility companies brought to heel? And the commuter rail services so unreliable that nationalisation is considered an acceptable alternative? A Labour drive to massively expand the public sector and maximise and mobilise the youth vote could see an uplift in Labour support: they have nothing to lose – and only the rich will pay – or so we are assured.
But that is not the only Conservative problem with a full-frontal attack on the Labour leader. The constantly repeated party slogan “Get Brexit Done” faces an increasing credibility hurdle as we enter the final fortnight of the election battle. It is a telling line of attack in the SNP manifesto and may spread out from here.
The Conservative pledge – blind to previous disasters in setting deadlines with Brussels – is that “we will not extend the [Brexit] negotiating period beyond December 2020”. But the prospect of hitting this deadline is widely challenged. And it is seen as a negotiating error that gives the European Commission every reason to frustrate and delay, forcing the UK into last-minute concessions. You don’t need to share the permanent pessimism of Sir Ivan Rogers, who quit as the UK’s senior Brexit diplomat in 2017, who has dismissed it as described as “diplomatic amateurism”.
As soon as the future relationship talks get underway Boris Johnson will be confronted with another deadline dead end - having to break his promise to deny a Brexit transition extension and let down Brexiteers, infuriate Nigel Farage – and agree further payments into the EU budget – or push for ‘no deal’.
As for Jo Swinson’s “Stop Brexit” campaign, the more that voters have seen of her, the less they like. Support for the Lib Dems has fallen markedly since last month. The Lib Dem party line has shifted from an emphasis on revoking Article 50 to campaigning for a second referendum with the option to remain on the ballot paper.
The reality is that all three major party leaders face searching questions on their credibility. And for all her assured media performances thus far, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has yet to address what a substantially enlarged SNP contingent at Westminster would do in the event of a Tory overall majority – and the immediate political hurdle to Brexit removed.
Two weeks to go - and time for more Defining Moments to make this election outcome a cliffhanger to the last.