First Thoughts: Why I fear Biden won’t win, my friend Jeffrey Archer, and the Daily Mail after Dacre

Despite leading in the polls by double digits, Biden still may not get a landslide. Then an even dirtier battle for the White House will begin. 

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America’s worst nightmare, I fear, is about to come true. For all his double-digit leads in national opinion polls, Joe Biden won’t get a landslide. At best, he will get a modest electoral college majority that Donald Trump can dispute, creating uncertainty that could persist to inauguration day in January.

Solidly Democratic states guarantee Biden 207 electoral college votes. He needs 270 for victory. Texas, Florida and Ohio, with 85 votes between them, are described as “toss-ups” but, when there’s a toss, the Republicans nearly always win it. Everyone remembers how the Supreme Court stopped a recount in Florida in 2000, handing a close election to George W Bush. What is forgotten is that, in 2004, even the usually infallible exit polls predicted victory for the Democrats’ John Kerry in Florida and Ohio. Bush took both.

Without the “toss-up” states, Biden must win five other states described as “leaning” towards him. Lose just one of them and Trump gets a second term. In two – Pennsylvania and Michigan, with a combined 36 college votes – the most recent polls show a Biden lead of less than 10 percentage points and even a narrow Trump lead. In both states, the Republicans control the two legislative chambers. They have ample scope for voter suppression and, if that fails, wrangling over a narrow Biden win. Biden’s path to the White House looks strewn with obstacles.

 

The mood of Middle England

Day after day, page after page, the Daily Mail rails against government measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and against proposals, particularly from Labour leaders, to strengthen them. “Lockdown’s lethal toll laid bare”, “Staying-in rule does not stop the virus”, “It’s Covid hysteria” are among the headlines. Talk of hospital beds filling up is described as “scare tactics”.

Yet opinion polls suggest only a minority of Britons – 15 per cent according to Ipsos Mori – think the rules are too strict and that at least 40 per cent say they are not strict enough. Support for measures to suppress the virus is particularly strong among the over-65s, who account for about half the Mail’s readers. The paper pleads, rather feebly, that focus groups tell a different story.

Under Paul Dacre’s 26-year editorship, the Mail had a sure instinct for the mood and fears of Middle England. Does Dacre’s successor, the urbane and metropolitan Old Etonian Geordie Greig, now in his second year as editor, lack that instinct?

[See also: First Thoughts: The right’s long march on Britain’s institutions]

 

A holiday in Hythe

Entirely by coincidence, an old friend offered me and Mrs W a few days’ break at his house in the Kent coastal town of Hythe, just as the infection rate for the district, which includes the larger resort of Folkestone, was proclaimed as one of England’s lowest. Is there a reason for this distinction? Locals suggest that the large beach and wide promenade between the two resorts allow them to socialise outdoors during breezy, virus-dispersing five-mile walks.

The sad truth, however, is that, out of season, geographical isolation and economic decline – Folkestone’s ferry services to France closed nearly 20 years ago – give virus-carrying outsiders little reason to pass through this part of Kent, unless they wish to roam Britain’s only official desert around Dungeness. Besides, by the time we left, the infection rate had more than doubled. I hope that, too, was a coincidence.

 

With friends like these...

At 80, Jeffrey Archer, the novelist, former Tory politician and convicted criminal (for perjury during a libel case), has lost none of his capacity for exaggeration. “I’ve lost maybe 50 or 60 close friends in the past ten years,” he tells Saga magazine, explaining why his birthday party was a small one instead of a big, glamorous affair of the sort he used to hold.

Since anthropologists say the human brain cannot cope with more than 15 meaningful relationships, this suggests Archer has a pretty low bar for close friendship. And it raises the truly alarming thought that, since I once successfully gatecrashed one of his supposedly exclusive parties, Archer may count me among his intimates. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 30 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning

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