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Justin Trudeau’s reversal will make British Conservatives wary of an early election

The Canadian prime minister’s failure to win a majority is a reminder of the risks of snap contests.

By Stephen Bush

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have won re-election, but fallen short of a majority. They will remain in office but will be reliant on the support of other parties, chiefly the left-wing NDP (Megan Gibson profiled their leader, Jagmeet Singh, for the New Statesman here). They will finish comfortably ahead of the Conservatives in terms of seats in parliament, but are highly likely to finish behind them in terms of votes.

In other words, it’s exactly the same as the 2019 election result. Even the same familiar scandals reared their head, with Trudeau once again facing questions about what exactly his government promised engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, and a new picture of him blacking up in his late 20s surfacing. The only difference is that the Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole, had a better campaign than his predecessor Andrew Scheer, and might live to fight another day.

The same result, but an unpredictable ride to get there: at times it appeared Trudeau might lose an election that began with a comfortable Liberal lead. He never managed to convince voters that he had a compelling reason for calling the snap contest, other than his own political interests and his party’s opinion poll lead.

It means that Canada remains one of the few countries where the established centre-left party has remained in office in the post-2008 era. But here in the UK it’s more likely the centre-right that will look to this contest for lessons. In part that’s because of the greater and deeper social ties: it’s much more common to bump into a UK Conservative staffer who has spent time on election campaigns and parliamentary offices in Canada, Australia or New Zealand than it is a Labour, SNP or Liberal Democrat one who has done the same; and also more common to meet a Canadian, Australian or New Zealander currently working in Conservative politics than the other way round. (There are notable exceptions to that in all the progressive parties, they’re just less widespread.)

When you talk to Labour MPs, they are still, in large numbers, convinced that the next UK election will come, at the latest, in 2023 and perhaps even 2022. But talk to their Conservative counterparts, including ones with the ear of the Prime Minister, and they say: look at what’s happened in Canada. Look at how unpredictable elections are and how much voters dislike ones without a clear rationale. One way or another, Germany’s election is going to provide a further reminder that elections are volatile and risky for all the parties involved: and while that lesson hasn’t been internalised in the Labour Party, it looks, at the moment, to be pretty well established in Conservative circles.

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[See also: What Justin Trudeau’s narrow election victory means for Canada]