At the start of the 2017 campaign, Labour trailed Theresa May’s government by 21 points in the opinion polls. Yet by campaign end they had secured 40% of the popular vote, just a couple of percentage points behind the Conservatives. Labour gained 30 seats, the Conservatives lost 13.
Labour’s recovery was as much due to the perceived incompetence of Theresa May as it was a result of Corbyn’s campaigning and public perception of him as a sincere politician. The Conservative Manifesto rivalled Labour’s 1983 Manifesto in being the “longest suicide note in history” and it became clear during the campaign that May was a less than confident leader, declining to take part in televised debates and even sidestepping an interview on Women’s Hour.
Two years on can Labour stage a similar recovery? Possibly. Those who believed that Johnson could not match his predecessor’s incompetence have been surprised by the lack of focus in the first week of the Conservative campaign, which – combined with a series of gaffes by ministers – saw Labour reducing the Conservative poll lead.
The outcome will be partially determined by whether the election revolves around Brexit or becomes “a traditional election” with wider policy areas to the fore. Labour must be hoping it is the latter, particularly with Farage’s announcement that the Brexit Party will not contest any Conservative held seats.
But the Conservative campaign may yet face significant difficulties. The government’s failure to publish the Cross Party Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on perceived Russian ‘in the UK poses the greatest risk. Published in the weekend papers, leaks suggest that nine Russian business people who donated to the Conservative Party are named in the report. With the UK’s intelligence agencies understood to be furious at the failure to publish, the issue is likely to rumble on. At the very least, this will blunt the Conservative attacks on Corbyn as a ‘friend of Russia’.
The outcome in Scotland will be crucial to the overall result. The SNP lost 21 seats just two years ago and the expectation, especially by London based commentators, is that many of these seats will return to the SNP, particularly since Ruth Davidson is no longer Tory leader.
But this assumption ignores the underlying trends in Scottish politics. Prior to devolution the Scottish Conservatives lost swathes of their support by failing to “Scottify” their policies. Their recovery in 2017 was largely due to these voters returning ‘home’ and this trend may continue, particularly since ‘natural’ Conservative supporters are now paying more tax than in the rest of the UK. And with the construction of Scotland’s two most modern hospitals being subject to a public inquiry, with academic standards falling in secondary education and signs that the First Minister is facing pressure from hardliners within her party, SNP success cannot be taken for granted.
With close on five weeks until polling day it is too early to predict the final outcome. It will be at least a couple of weeks before I head to the bookies!
All opinions expressed are the author’s own.