Perhaps before the end of the year, perhaps in the spring, but sooner rather than later, there is going to be another election. Almost everything Boris Johnson has done and said since becoming Prime Minister has been a reflection on that reality, as has almost everything his government has announced.
I’ve been tracking the government’s spending announcements and promises since then, in order to produce a rough and ready guide as to where it thinks the battleground seats are. Using a combination of its 100 towns fund, its six new hospitals, its education spending announcements and various other pledges, I’ve produced a list of what I think are the constituencies that the government believes represent its target and defensive seats.
I’ve tried to do this in a sensible way – for instance, the constituency of Christchurch has been a beneficiary of spending announcements under Boris Johnson, but I don’t think this is because they fear defeat in Christchurch, which voted to Leave by 58 per cent and where the Conservatives enjoy a 25,000 vote lead over the Labour Party. I think it’s because the spending announcements in Christchurch will have important consequences in the neighbouring Bournemouth constituencies, where the Liberal Democrats control the council.
I’ve eliminated the likes of Norwich South (which the Conservatives privately echo what all the available information suggests, which is that they have no hope or prospect of winning the seat) and Dudley South (where a similar dynamic applies), particularly as their new spending grants largely focus on services shared with their more marginal neighbours.
In addition to private information, I’ve tried to use local election results essentially as ballast for the list in a similar way. So while it is an imperfect list, it is, I think, a helpful one that will help inform where the New Statesman team goes during the election. My fuller impression of where the election will be decided and how we are going to cover it here at the NS will be published soon.
But, of course, there is a big problem with this approach: the Conservatives are fighting an election in three theatres – England, Scotland and Wales – but can only announce spending commitments in one: England. So I’ve used a combination of private information from the various political parties and the upper limit of the Conservative target area to add seats from Wales. (The Scottish battleground will be covered in another piece.)
I’ve been told by several well-placed sources that the Conservatives have opted to make a virtue out of necessity here: some of the English seats that have received extra spending are those that have very big Labour majorities but that are demographically similar to those with smaller ones. The governing party thinks it might be able to take these if absolutely everything goes to plan – and seeing as it can’t splash the cash in lower-hanging fruit in Wales, its opted to go for it in England on the off-chance.
Right, that’s enough methodology; here are the results. Here’s where the Conservatives are targeting, ordered by their majority in 2017, from smallest to largest, based on where the government is spending money:
Crewe and Nantwich
Penistone and Stockbridge
Wolverhampton South West
Vale Of Clwyd
Bolton North East
Alyn and Deeside
West Bromwich West
Wolverhampton North East
West Bromwich East
Wolverhampton South East
Cardiff South and Penarth
Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford
St Helens North
St Helens South
Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney
There’s a lot to go over here. The first is that, unsurprisingly, this list looks a lot like, but is not identical to, if I’d just pulled out the list of the most marginal Labour seats. While one’s first instinct is to look at some of these names and some of these majorities and think that this looks like a crazy set of targets, the reality of the 2017 result is that it bequeathed an electoral map in which the number of genuine marginal seats on either side was pretty slim and the number of Conservative targets was slimmer still.
Most of the seats missing from a straightforward list of the most marginal seats are not a surprise either: Kensington, Stroud and Canterbury are the only absences from the top ten. All have more Remainers than the national average and all are the types of seats that the government is willing to risk in order to do significantly better in Hartlepool than it has done previously. While this is a useful and fun exercise in terms of seeing the wider battleground, it isn’t particularly surprising. But doing the same with Conservative-held seats to produce a list of defensive targets produces the following, again ordered from smallest to largest by their majority in 2017:
Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland
Milton Keynes South
Milton Keynes North
Camborne and Redruth
Morley and Outwood
Vale of Glamorgan
North East Derbyshire
Darwen and Rossendale
Truro and Falmouth
Scarborough and Whitby
Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire
Halesowen and Rowley Regis
Brecon and Radnorshire
Brigg and Goole
Boston and Skegness
Very few surprises in terms of the Labour-Conservative battlegrounds. But noteworthy is that – as is echoed privately by many Conservatives from the area – the government regards Claire Wright, of the independent campaign in East Devon, as a serious challenger for the seat. Interesting, too, is where the government places the Conservative-Liberal Democrat battleground: well away from the seats that the Liberal Democrats are heavily resourcing, and deep into Conservative territory.
Although the circumstances of a by-election made Brecon and Radnorshire a must-win for the Lib Dems, it is at the far reaches of their ambitions in a general election. The likes of Wells, which voted to Leave, where the incumbent Conservative MP James Heappey has a large majority and is generally believed by both parties to be well-organised and well dug-in, is a surprising seat on the list.
Still, it confirms what the government’s overarching approach suggests: that its political strategy presupposes double-digit losses from the Liberal Democrats – but bets that it can win in some very unlikely Labour seats to make up the gap.