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21 August 2019updated 09 Jul 2021 7:41am

As the polls narrow, the Tories are haunted by lost majorities from elections they believed they’d win

By Stephen Bush

The Conservatives are haunted by the ghosts of parliamentary majorities they failed to win. In the summer of 2017, they started the campaign 20 points ahead of the Labour Party and on course for a thumping majority. In the end, they just held on to power. In 2010, under David Cameron, they were led by the most capable Conservative politician of his generation and Labour had been in office during the global financial crisis. They gained 96 seats – the biggest haul of constituency gains in a single night by the party since 1935 – but still did not win a majority.

The number of Tory MPs who believed Boris Johnson to be the party’s best option for the role of prime minister can be counted on the fingers of one hand, but he won the support of a majority of the parliamentary party because they thought he was the best candidate to keep them in office. As one previously hyper-critical Conservative put it to me shortly before they publicly endorsed Johnson for the top job: “If we want to deliver good government, first we have to stay in government.”

Cameron was not a centrist, though he did a remarkably good job of playing the role of one, while implementing a radical reform agenda in health and education and presiding over the biggest reduction in government spending in British political history.

Unlike Cameron’s government, Johnson’s is firmly in the middle ground of politics, if you define “middle ground” as “whatever the polls and focus groups suggest is the most popular place to be among Leave voters”.

Over the course of the election campaign, he has promised to sign up to a free-trading version of Brexit that would take Britain out of the EU’s customs union and single market – but has also pledged to keep the National Health Service and British agriculture out of any US-UK trade deal, which precludes any meaningful accord with the United States.

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He has committed to keep income tax, National Insurance and VAT flat or falling, while promising to increase spending on the police, education and the NHS, as well as reducing the UK’s debt by the end of the next parliament. Taken together, Johnson’s promises mean funding the transformation of the public realm while substituting the economic benefits of EU membership for the economic benefits of a London NFL franchise.

Most voters sense they are being sold a false bill of goods. When I sat in on a BritainThinks focus group of undecided voters in Reading recently, the word they immediately associated with Boris Johnson was “liar”. When asked who would benefit most from a Conservative win, it was as if the years of work that Cameron had done to broaden the party’s appeal had been wiped away. The only beneficiaries from a fourth term for the Tories were the rich, those who own big businesses and “people who aren’t ill”. Participants thought that the party’s much-repeated promises on the NHS and more nurses were Labour pledges: because they still associate the opposition party with keeping the health service in good order.

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They even associated the Conservatives’ pledge not to increase taxes with Jeremy Corbyn, not Boris Johnson. (Their reasoning would hardly delight the Labour leader: one participant said they liked it “but it’s definitely not possible, which means that it must be a Labour policy”, to nods of agreement.) But most voters I have spoken to, across the country, do not have a positive reaction to the Conservatives’ present incarnation. They make the Tories feel more akin to a party about to lose office in a landslide rather than one that, if the polls are right, is entering the campaign’s final days in touching distance of an emphatic victory.

What’s the secret to this success? The answer is the one policy that BritainThinks’ swing voters were able reliably to identify as a Conservative one: “getting Brexit done”.

If the UK ever had a particular passion for leaving the EU, that moment has long since passed. The one unifying opinion about Brexit in this country is that it has taken too long: and most people, whether they voted to Remain or Leave, want the issue to be resolved. An electorate that is justly sceptical of Johnson is tempted by his biggest fib yet: that by ratifying his Brexit deal, they can make it “go away”.

The single biggest failure of the various pro-Remain forces is that they have failed to explain to voters that the only way for Brexit to go away is for it not to happen. Instead, the campaigns have been blighted by petty infighting from day one. During one particularly bad patch of relations between the pro-referendum People’s Vote organisation  and the Liberal Democrats, the latter’s press office was instructed, in a show of defiance, never to capitalise the phrase “people’s vote” in its press releases.

That failure has been to Johnson’s benefit. It means that the advantages of a soft, off-the-shelf Brexit such as the one envisaged by Jeremy Corbyn seem illusory – something that has been made worse by the Labour leader’s failure to advocate for European Economic Area membership. And it makes Jo Swinson’s pledge to revoke Article 50 seem like a pointless flight of fancy.

Instead, it is Johnson’s false argument that a Tory majority will make Brexit “go away” that has won over the country – or so it seems. Indeed, the one promise that the swing voters of Reading believe is that a Tory win means that Brexit will be finished and gone, so the country can move on.

As we enter the final week of the campaign, the  electorate is torn between distrust of Boris Johnson and distaste at the Brexit process. Britain’s antipathy to its prime minister could still prove greater than its aversion to yet more paralysing debate about the EU, hence the spectral presence of those lost majorities.

This article appears in the 04 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want