Someone senior at CCHQ really doesn’t want a general election any time soon. He or she has told the Sun that the Conservatives would lose a snap poll “because they are woefully underprepared to fight one”. Other highlights from the story: “secret party projections instead put Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10, at the helm of a rainbow coalition government including the SNP and the Lib Dems”; CCHQ’s database “is badly out of date” and “the Tories currently don’t even have an opinion polling firm under contract”.
All this helps to flesh out answers to some of the questions we asked last weekend about how Downing Street, CCHQ and the Party more widely would cope with a sudden election. Some of them were about the manifesto – such as what on earth it would say about Brexit policy, and whether both Leavers and Remainers would revolt. Others were about the machine, and were at least as pressing. The Party has got used to outsourcing its general election campaigns. Who would run one now were a poll to happen? Lynton Crosby is reported to be advising Boris Johnson. In any event, he is implicated in the 2017 bungled campaign. Furthermore, there’s no evidence that – in the absence of up to date data – he would grasp at such a poisoned chalice in any event.
The Sun also cites “analysis by centre-right think tank Onward”: “of the 317 seats that the Tories won in 2017, 40 are held by a margin of five per cent or smaller – and Labour hold second place in 35 of them”. Will Tanner, its Director, is quoted, but it may be worth noting that a member of the think-tank’s advisory board is one of the few Conservative strategists who emerged from the last election with his reputation enhanced. James Kanagasooriam sits on it. He helped to mastermind the Tory advance in Scotland.
Let’s try to bring some of the figures that Tanner quotes to life. Here are the Conservative-held seats in Greater London together with their majorities:
Now what follows must be heavily qualified – not least by recognising, at the start, that those who write political commentary tend to live in or near London, which can distort their perspective on Britain as whole.
Here are some other cautionary notes. Were there to be a Liberal Democrat revival in parts of Greater London, it would be likely to depress Labour’s vote more than the Conservatives’. Local factors matter: so, for example, the Jewish vote in parts of north-west London make the Party’s prospects in Finchley & Golders Green, Hendon and Chipping Barnet a bit better than they look on paper. And some of the MPs who hold Greater Londom seats are strong constituency campaigners.
None the less, let us as a rough starting-point count any seat in this list with a majority of less than 5000 as a marginal. Were Labour (plus the Liberal Democrats in one case) to take them all, the Party would lose the following from a new Parliament: Zac Goldsmith, Theresa Villiers, Matthew Offord, Justine Greening, Mike Freer, Bob Blackman, Iain Duncan Smith and Mark Field. Stephen Hammond and Boris Johnson would be on the cusp.
Essentially, the Party could be left with one constituency in inner London – Chelsea and Fulham – and a string of seats in outer London that sometimes identify more with the counties that border them than the capital.
This takes us to the crunch. Obviously, not all of Greater London is Remain Central. Some boroughs voted to Leave the EU in 2016: Barking and Dagenham, Bexley, Sutton, Havering and Hillingdon. Others’ backing for Remain was not emphatic: so in Newham, for example, Remain took 53 per cent of the vote.
None the less, London bucked the national trend and voted Remain – scooping more than 70 per cent of the poll in some areas. And Labour’s policy is now creeping Remainwards – towards extending Article 50, for example. This is likely to act as a minus to the party in much of provincial Britain but as a plus most of London.
You will point out that a snap general election might not be swung by Brexit at all: after all, the last one wasn’t. But the capital has been trending to Labour in any event. In 2015, its share of the vote in the capital increased by 7.1 per cent points compared with 2010. This was the largest increase in Labour’s share of the vote in any nation or region of the UK.
In short, it’s plausible to imagine, in the event of a snap poll, Brexit not helping the Conservatives much in provincial Britain, but it harming them to a significant degree in London. Nationally, it would shed lots of former Remain voters without gaining many new Leave ones. Kanagasooriam is certainly alive to the possibility.
Which is why, in the ideal world that doesn’t exist, the Party is best off getting past March 29, presuming no extension; electing a new leader to set a firm direction for trade talks (or wider negotiations in the event of No Deal), and building a truly national appeal during the run-up to 2022. Whoever gave the Sun its story seems to be thinking in the same way.