The UK is finally having an election. After months of speculation since Boris Johnson became prime minister, parliament has agreed to go to the polls in December.
This time though, the Conservative Party will be keen to avoid the disappointment of the 2017 election. With Theresa May at the helm, the party lost 13 seats whilst Labour gained 30. In order to avoid a similar fate, the Tories will need to succeed with three important elements of their campaign.
One of them, inevitably, will be Brexit. The strength of the Tories’ position here is that they have a deal with the EU waiting to be ratified; ‘oven ready’ as Mr Johnson claims. Thus, with a new Tory majority, the renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration can be passed swiftly through the House of Commons to complete the first stage of Brexit without ‘dither or delay’.
There is a twofold drawback to this. Firstly, opposition MPs can argue that the government was in a position to potentially pass the Agreement prior to calling for an election. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill, or the WAB, passed the second reading last month; this could be viewed as implicit approval of Mr Johnson’s deal. Conservative campaigners will counter this by arguing that opposition MPs were poised to throw down numerous amendments, potentially delaying the process and defacing the deal itself.
The second drawback to the Tories’ position on Brexit is that Mr Johnson’s deal is far from perfect. This attack will be aggressively launched by the Brexit Party, whose leader, Nigel Farage, lamented that the deal “reduces the United Kingdom to a status of a colony”. Only if the deal is ditched will the Brexit Party make an election pact with the Conservatives.
But Mr Johnson rejected the offer, and perhaps rightly so. Taking it up would rid the Tories of their simple and penetrating message that they can ‘get Brexit done’ with their ‘great new deal’. It may well be the case that Farage’s offer was designed to be rejected anyway, so as to construct the perception that the Tories are merely putting party before country.
Furthermore, the current deal with the EU is likely the best that the UK will be able to get. The EU was previously adamant that the backstop, part of Mrs May’s original agreement, was the only way of keeping an open border in Ireland. Mr Johnson’s new deal flips this by turning the backstop into a ‘frontstop’ and an alternative arrangement in itself. This, combined with a consent mechanism supposedly consistent with the Good Friday Agreement makes it difficult to see how the EU could budge further.
Yet fighting the election on Brexit alone would not be enough for the Tories. Such an attempt in 2017 failed because, at that time, the Brexit issued had been temporarily settled. The referendum had been held the year before producing a leave result, Article 50 had been triggered and negotiations were set to begin soon after the results. Accordingly, there was not much for the Conservative Party to offer on the issue other than to ‘deliver Brexit’, a pledge that most voters expected from candidates. It was therefore nothing unique, and the attempt to centre the election around Brexit exposed the Tories’ poor domestic offering.
While the election may be somewhat different this time, Brexit is still in many ways a conglomerate of domestic issues rather than a single foreign policy issue. The Labour Party will try to break Brexit down into a number of sub-issues associated with the reasons why people voted for Brexit in 2016. This will include, among other things, the NHS, schools and the police. The more that the election focuses on these issues, the more comfortable it will be for Labour.
As such, the Tories should give careful attention to their domestic offering to complement their position on Brexit – so far they seem to have done. An advantage has already been obtained by the Conservatives gearing up for an election for some time. Their commitments on Brexit and funding for the NHS have swirled around social media and the press for months. Such policies can also help to tackle the party’s age-old image as the ‘nasty party’ that does not care about ‘ordinary people’. This angle is something that Labour will be keen to promote.
The final part of a successful election campaign was also missing in 2017: an effective digital strategy. Many commentators have pointed to Labour’s strong use of social media to capture the imaginations of young voters during and after the 2017 election. This is largely due to the party inspiring its voters to become activists, greatly increasing Labour’s presence on various platforms by delegating much of the digital groundwork. This would certainly be one way to get around Twitter’s recent ban on political advertising.
The Tories should look to do the same. Mr Johnson’s use of Facebook to livestream the “People’s PMQs”, where voters can ask questions of the prime minister directly, is a good start. But the Conservatives must be careful to not use too much of their online presence to attack Labour and the other opposition parties. Giving voters positive reasons to vote Tory in December will be far more useful. Plus, a successful digital strategy along these lines will be especially important since the winter months will likely reduce the frequency of political canvassing.
Even with these three elements — a strong Brexit policy, a convincing domestic agenda and an effective digital strategy — an election is still highly risky for the Tories. But, as a fellow Backbench commentator has argued, an election now may be the only way to move the country forward. The Conservatives better make the most of it.