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The 2019 UK General Elections: A Pre-Election Overview

12 Dec 2019
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by Chatham House. Source:

In the lead-up to the UK general elections, polls predict a Tory victory. However, with 50 seats that could go either way, the outcome is anyone’s guess.

The first constituency to announce in the UK election will declare its result just after 11am Friday AEST. The final count will be known by very late Saturday night. Australian Outlook’s Colin Chapman will present a complete analysis on Monday morning.

As Britain’s election day draws nigh, the polls are showing that Boris Johnson’s Conservative party should win a comfortable majority in spite of a lacklustre and, at times, tedious campaign. A mega-poll by Faldata, using a technique to estimate opinion in each constituency, concluded the Tories would win 545 seats, while Labour and the other main opposition parties would together gain only 286.

We shall see. Polls have been wrong before: in Britain in 2017 and, memorably, in Australia earlier this year when Bill Shorten’s Labor Party was soundly beaten by Scott Morrison’s Coalition. We will know the answer sometime on Friday (Australian time), and your correspondent will analyse the results at the weekend. For now, I stand by my comment when the election was called: that the contest is Johnson’s to lose. The outcome will depend on whether the Conservatives can win enough seats from Labour to compensate for those they will surely lose in Scotland and in parts of London and the West Country. 50 seats could swing either way. An unknown factor is how many traditional Labour voters who voted “leave” in the 2016 Brexit referendum will abandon their party and support Johnson’s “Get it Done” slogan.

Nevertheless, we can draw a number of conclusions from the events of recent weeks. As George W Bush’s defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld loved to say, “There are known knowns, things we know we know, and there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are things we do not know”.

First, the most significant knowns.

Brexit is not over. Boris Johnson, having failed in his “do or die” pledge to ensure that Britain left the European Union by the end of October, called the election in a bid to “get it done” by 31 January 2020. Even if he wins, Brexit will not be a done deal. Britain may cease to be a full member of the EU but will continue to have transitional ties with Brussels for a further 12 months, during which period it hopes to be able to negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) with the remaining 27 countries. Effectively, 31 January will mark the end of the beginning, but only the beginning of the next phase. It may well take longer than a year to hammer out all the fine print of an FTA. And, assuming it is  accomplished, concluding a trade deal with the United States (or even Australia) will have to wait. The “great deal” Donald Trump has repeatedly offered may never materialise, not least because he may lose the presidential election in November 2020.

The five-week election campaign now concluding has been larded with dozens of promises made by the leaders of the two main parties that have strained credibility and had the fact checkers working overtime. Boris Johnson in particular has, for the most part, evaded serious questioning by the media, preferring to race up and down the country by helicopter for a series of heavily contrived photo opportunities. In many years of covering elections in western democracies – and running academic courses on political reporting – I cannot remember any contest where a website has been set up solely for the purpose of chronicling Johnson’s lies. Compiled by a team including the seasoned political journalist Peter Oborne, the site calls Johnson “uniquely deceitful among British prime ministers” and highlights a quote from Sir Walter Scott: “O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive.” The site lists, in date order, scores of falsehoods, all carefully documented.

It would require a book to list the falsehoods, some entertaining. But two stand out: one is Johnson’s repeated insistence that the withdrawal agreement he agreed with Brussels would not lead to border checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, a highly sensitive issue. Leaked government documents on plans for the implementation of the agreement confirm that border checks are proposed, much to the fury of the Democratic Unionist Party and adding to the concerns of those who fear for the future of the Good Friday Agreement and fear a return to violence in the province. The second falsehood has been Johnson’s insistence that the future of the National Health Service is not on the agenda for trade talks with the United States; minutes of meetings between officials show that such discussions have already been held.

These revelations do not appear to perturb the mass of voters. Johnson’s personal ratings at just below 40 percent are not high, but well above that of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. It is too simplistic to say the public care little about truth and honesty in politics; this is a known unknown. What is true is that Johnson is a better campaigner than Corbyn, has more celebrity status, and manages to avoid giving the impression that he is an old Etonian born to rule. He is friendly with the limited numbers of the public he actually cares to meet.

Isaac Levido, the Australian who is running Johnson’s campaign, has done a brilliant job, imposing an iron discipline on his sometimes-wayward client and keeping him away from those journalists, particularly broadcasters, likely to ask penetrating and hostile questions. Neither Levido nor Johnson seem to have been the least bit bothered by empty chairs, or ice-work dummies in studios, placed there to emphasise Johnson’s failure to turn up for a set piece interview or debate. For the most part, the prime minister has stuck to his script of “Get Brexit Done,” while ruthlessly taking advantage of opportunities presented by events such as the London Bridge stabbings by a convicted Al Q’aeda member prematurely released from jail on licence. Johnson has repeatedly humiliated Corbyn by pointing out the Labour leader’s unwillingness to state clearly his position on Brexit.

But Corbyn clearly won the debate on the future of the NHS, exposing Johnson’s questionable pledges on plugging the huge shortages of doctors and nurses, and exposing the large number of A & E patients who often have to wait in trolley bays or hospital corridors before they can be seen by a clinician.

The big loser in the campaign has been the founder and leader of the Brexit party, Nigel Farage, who started the campaign with hubris and bravado, trying to force the Tories into a deal whereby each party would only field a candidate if they thought they could win. Johnson rightly rejected this overture, making good on his promise to “put Nigel back in his box.” Farage has now presided over the self-destruction of two parties (UKIP in 2017 and Brexit in 2019) and will return to his LBC radio slot.

Finally, spare a thought for Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who fought a campaign centred on stopping Brexit altogether. Given that the election was supposed to be all about Brexit, you would think she might have been given more opportunity to put her case. But the BBC and commercial television both showed considerable bias against Swinson and her party, keeping her out of their main TV debates. Only the minority Channel 4 gave her a fair hearing (BBC’s coverage of this election, overall, has been disappointing, and will be carefully reviewed). Swinson has also been wrong footed by unexpectedly strong and repeated attacks on her for being a minister in the Coalition formed by the first Cameron government. It remains a “known unknown” how the Liberal Democrats will fare in Thursday’s poll, but their hope of holding the balance of power now seems forlorn.

Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster and public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.