‘This time is different’ is rarely solid analysis. That’s troubling news for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, who will need to carve out an exception to this rule if they are to succeed in the coming election.
The Tories’ 2019 strategy, like their 2017 campaign before it, hinges on winning Labour-held seats in pro-Leave constituencies to offset expected losses elsewhere. The problem is that when Theresa May went to the country two years ago with the message “every vote for me will strengthen my hand,” she found it amputated instead. The question now is whether enough has changed to let Johnson escape the same fate.
The Conservatives hope their lack of hubris this election cycle will help deliver the victory that eluded them two years ago, as well as the apparent collapse in Labour’s support. This too bears a superficial resemblance to 2017: when Theresa May called her snap election, the Tories led Labour by over 15 percentage points, about the same margin they enjoy in the polls now. But this time is different in one important respect. Before the 2017 election around 40% of Britons reported satisfaction with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. That number is down to 15% now, and Corbyn is underwater even among his own supporters, per recent polling by according to Ipsos-mori.
Internal strife and the loss of their coalition partners in the DUP also exaggerates the challenge the Tories face. Boris Johnson must win just 8 more seats than May won in 2017. This could prove easier than the Conservatives’ current governing minority would suggest, as there are 41 seats the Tories won as recently as 2010 currently held by opposition MPs (see table). Even assuming the 9 such seats around London stay lost, along with the 8 in the more pro-Remain south east, that still leaves 24 seats spread across pro-Leave regions primed for a Tory takeover, such as Lincoln (Conservative in 2010 and 2015, 56.9% in favor of Leave) and Ipswich (also Conservative in 2010 and 2015, 58.6% in favor of Leave). Those 24 potential gains could compensate for a possible Tory wipeout in Scotland, currently home to 13 Conservative MPs. In this admittedly simplified scenario, Boris Johnson gains 11 seats — enough to secure a majority.
Over three years into an endless divorce process, there are also signs the reliable Labour constituencies May tried and failed to court in 2017 may finally be susceptible to the Conservatives’ charms. Take Ashfield and Bolsover, for example (Leave vote share: 70.8% and 69.8%, respectively). In 2015, Labour took Bolsover by nearly 12,000 votes; in 2017 the margin fell to less than half that. In Ashfield, Labour won by nearly 9,000 votes in 2015; in 2017, just 500. The trend is there, and 2019 may prove to be the inflection point. Even stalwart Remain voices, such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Dalibor Rohac, are now urging a quick end to the saga, an end only the Conservatives promise to deliver: “There is no point in prolonging the agony of divorce. The U.K. must go.”
But divorces have a way of dragging on, especially when the parties involved find it difficult to let go of long-held attachments. And therein lies the risk in running back Theresa May’s failed 2017 strategy. Constituents may want a divorce from the EU, but not if it means renouncing their ancestral support of Labour. “We’re not confident at all,” one senior adviser to Johnson told The Financial Times. “Of course this is a gamble. But it’s the least worst option.”