Will Boris Johnson’s ‘Ant Man’ Tactics Get Him The Majority He Craves?

Tories try to play down the Tory poll lead. Labour hopes it will shrink.

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The great regression

The great British public can be forgiven that this entire winter election is the most negative they’ve seen in years. Throughout the campaign, the two main parties have been talking about their opponents’ downsides, not their own upsides.

From Jeremy Corbyn, almost the only message you hear is that the Tories will ‘sell the NHS to Trump’. From Boris Johnson, every day is a mantra that Labour won’t get Brexit done and will hold two referendums (one on the EU, one on Scotland) instead.

Labour’s big reveal today was all about secret documents showing that UK and US officials had discussed the role of drugs pricing and the British health service in a future trade deal. Far from being ‘off the table’, the suggestion was that the NHS would be plonked like a thanksgiving turkey on a platter, pre-cooked and ready to be carved up by a wicked US president.

The most eye-catching section showed that British officials said “patent issues” related to “NHS access to generic drugs” would be a “key consideration going forward”. Of course this doesn’t prove the UK is craven to American negotiators, and may instead be a gentle way of stroking Washington to keep other elements of the deal alive. But if the UK had wanted to really make clear the NHS was a red line in any talks, then there would be no room for “key consideration”.

That the US was also talking explicitly about preferring a ‘hard Brexit’, with no pesky EU alignment rules, will further fuel suspicions that this has paved the way for Johnson’s own bare-bones free trade deal plans with Brussels. With a Farage-inspired manifesto pledge not to extend the transition to a deal with the EU beyond next year, we could be heading for a very hard exit indeed.

The voters won’t get bogged down in such detail. Some will believe the line that Johnson has a secret plan to do anything it takes to win Trump’s favour. After all, as Dominic Cummings famously said about Tory MPs: “They don’t care about the NHS. And the public has kind of cottoned on to that.” But I suspect many (like our focus group in Watford recently) think no government could get away with selling off our cherished NHS.‌

Speaking of Cummings, the PM’s chief adviser (who has temporarily stepped aside from his No.10 role) has a new blog up tonight that is causing probably the reaction he wanted. It seems like a parody in parts, but you can tell it’s authentic because it talks about “foreigners”, rambles on and highlights AI and a doubling of science spending.‌

For a self-styled modernist, Cummings engages in the very old fashioned game of expectations management, warning Leave voters not to be lulled by a big poll that is expected tonight to show a large lead for the Tories. The Times/YouGov MRP (mutli-level regression with post-stratification) analysis (showing a 68-seat majority) has attracted almost magical status, largely because a similar exercise in 2017 proved highly accurate.


MRPs have become very fashionable in recent months and they’re deployed by many different groups. Obviously, the data behind them is crucial (Lord Ashcroft’s own MRP predicted a big Theresa May majority in 2017). Only today, a new MRP for anti-Brexit group Best for Britain spelled serious doom for Corbyn, forecasting Labour would plunge to 199 seats.

Personally, I’m not that convinced that many voters will change their behaviour if they think a governing party is going to walk an election or if they think it’s a tight race. True, some people may have voted Labour in 2017 because it was a ‘safe’ option as they didn’t really think he would win. The bigger factor for the Tory and Labour surges in vote share (and don’t forget they both went up) was probably the fact that UKIP and the LibDems were deemed unsupportable.

More importantly, the size of any majority will certainly have an impact on the next parliament. If it’s tight, the hardcore Brexiteers will flex their muscles and a no-deal exit may be more likely. If there’s a Tory landslide, it’s possible Johnson would have room to rub out his red line on not extending the transition.

It’s worth adding the point that we are still two weeks from polling day and any poll, MRP-designed or not, is only a snapshot of the current situation. I’ve been saying Labour will probably get an uptick between now and December 12 (and tonight’s ComRes poll puts them on 34%).

But as things stand across multiple polls, the PM is benefiting hugely from his ability to duck and dive, avoid scrutiny (he could bottle the Andrew Neil interview, he today again only took regional media questions at his South West event) and generally bluff his way through it all. Joking about Cornish cream teas is a classic way of avoiding tricky issues like no-deal Brexit.

In our Commons People podcast today, former Ken Livingstone aide Matthew McGregor made an excellent point about Johnson. Between elections, he makes himself ‘big’ through his huge media profile. Yet during an election, he makes himself ‘small’ (and a difficult target) through a thin policy manifesto. Yes, Boris is the political equivalent of Marvel superhero Ant Man.

As for Corbyn, he did some sidestepping of his own today. I asked him, given his repeated line that this election is not about him but about Labour, if he agreed with Lord Kerslake that his own leadership should form part of conversations with smaller parties (ie ‘on the table’, you might say) in any hung parliament. Corbyn instead said: “We’re fighting this election to win it. We are not fighting it to do a deal with other parties.” That didn’t sound like a denial.

If the Tories continue to have a healthy lead, however, the whole prospect of a hung parliament may look academic. And as a football fan, Corbyn will be aware of the two current models of regime change for when the going gets tough.

Spurs changed a long-standing manager and have seen a swift turnaround in results. Arsenal (Corbyn’s own club) changed a long-standing manager and have seen no turnaround, suggesting a more fundamental failure with the team not just the gaffer. Neither example offers much comfort to Corbyn and Labour. That’s why he needs those polls to turn, and fast.

Quote Of The Day

“I love every day campaigning.”

Jeremy Corbyn, asked if his Neil interview was the worst day of his election campaign.

Wednesday’s Election Cheat Sheet

Jeremy Corbyn refused repeatedly to apologise for his party’s handling of anti-semitism. The closest he came was when he said general secretary Jennie Formby wrote an article for Jewish News “making clear the party deeply regrets and is very sorry for what happened before the new rules came in and obviously I support everything that she has said on that”.‌

Boris Johnson said “of course” when asked if he would apologise “for all the hurt and offence” caused by members, councillors and candidates guilty of racism against Muslims. Former Sajid Javid spad Salma Shah told HuffPost UK the PM should also apologise for his ‘letterbox’ jibe about women wearing burqas.

Corbyn said 451 pages of unredacted documents obtained by Labour prove the NHS is “for sale” in a post-Brexit trade deal being negotiated between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Johnson rejected the accusation as an ‘invention’.

Nicola Sturgeon launched the SNP election manifesto with a promise to “escape Brexit and put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands”. SNP candidate John Nicolson, who is trying to win Ochil and South Perthshire from the Tories, sparked ‘carpetbagger’ ridicule by referring to the seat as “East Dunbartonshire”.

A new SavantaComRes/Telegraph poll put the Tories on 41%, Labour on 34% and the Lib Dems on 13%. It was their Labour figure since March and the lowest Lib Dem figure since May.

The Times/YouGov MRP poll put the Tories on 359 seats, a gain of 42 on 2017, while Labour would lose 51 seats to go down to 211 seats. The Lib Dems would gain just one to secure 13 constituencies.

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