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18 November 2019

Why does Boris Johnson want the Liberal Democrats to do well?

Unless there is tactical voting, Jo Swinson will hurt Labour more than the Tories.  

By George Grylls

Labour and the Liberal Democrats spent last week tearing chunks off one another from Canterbury to High Peak. Now that the nomination papers are in, we know for certain that it will be all-out war between the two parties.

If Remain is the name of the game, then there is no doubt that Labour ought to have stood aside for the Lib Dems in St Albans. Equally, the Lib Dems ought to have given way for Labour in Battersea. But politics is never so simple. Mix in anti-Semitism, defections, austerity and Jeremy Corbyn, and suddenly there is not much trust left between the two parties. There was never going to be a pact.

As such, the Liberal Democrat resurgence currently benefits the Conservatives. Boris Johnson has effectively given up on “one nation” bastions like Richmond Park and Cheltenham in an effort to concentrate the Leave vote. Thus far he has been successful – his current polling ought to give him a majority. At the same time, the Remain vote stands divided.

Until the point where the Liberal Democrats become genuine challengers for government, they will continue to damage Labour more than the Conservatives. Take Stoke-on-Trent South, which the Tories took by 663 votes in 2017. Had the constituency’s 808 Lib Dem voters held their noses and voted Labour, then the seat would never have gone blue. Small Labour losses to the Lib Dems have big consequences. The ultimate irony in Stoke is that Rob Flello, the Labour MP who lost his seat, went on to defect to the Lib Dems (although he has since been deselected by Jo Swinson’s party for voting against same-sex marriage as a Labour MP).

There is ample data to show that the Lib Dems are doing more damage to Labour than they are to the Conservatives. By averaging seven polls, Sir John Curtice has shown that for every one Remainer that the Conservatives have lost since 2017, Labour has lost two. Although the Lib Dems have hurt the Conservatives, they have hurt Labour more.

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There is one big caveat. A small amount of tactical voting could have a disproportionate effect. This is the great unknown at this election, and the only thing that Johnson’s modelling cannot account for. At the moment, it looks unlikely that tactical voting will take place on the scale needed to prevent a Tory majority. It would require canniness from voters across the country – not just in St Albans and Richmond Park, but in Stoke-on-Trent South as well.