With a week and a half left before parliamentary elections, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears to be gliding toward a relatively easy win. The polls, although never a sure thing, look good for him. The opposition is divided, and overall voters appear to have even more doubts about Johnson’s main opponent than they do about Johnson.
What could go wrong? For one thing, his truth-challenged cousin from across the pond is arriving Monday. And if the past is any indication, he’ll want to get in on the action.
This election may mostly be about Brexit, but in other ways it looks eerily like the U.S. presidential campaign.
While health care is a big issue, one of the big questions is about U.S. drug companies. Specifically, if Brexit does indeed happen (as Johnson insists it will), does he then — as his opponents charge — negotiate a free trade deal that allows U.S. drug companies to drive up prices in Britain?
Johnson also is refusing to release a parliamentary report on Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum. And the Guardian newspaper caused a kerfuffle this past week with a report about contributions by rich Americans and U.S. foundations to conservative causes in the U.K.
And then, there’s President Trump. Despite the fact that he’s widely reviled in the U.K., he can’t seem to help putting himself in the middle of it all.
Maybe this time will be different. But no one’s betting on that. Just the other day, Johnson asked Trump – publicly but very nicely – to clam up.
Trump and other leaders of NATO countries are overseas to attend festivities marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the alliance. The events are largely ceremonial, but it will be a minor miracle if no one walks away mad. French President Emmanuel Macron undiplomatically asked this fall whether the alliance was in effect brain dead, earning a death stare from Germany’s Angela Merkel. Among the attendees will be Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has become something of a pariah for his repressive tactics at home, his deals with Russia and his invasion of northern Syria. For what it’s worth, Erdogan says it’s Macron who’s brain dead.
But to get back to Britain: Polling can be squishy in U.K. elections, and until the very late stages of the campaign it can tend to underestimate the strength of Johnson’s main opponent, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor Party. Labor is famous for its “ground game,” teams of party members who campaign door-to-door. No one gave Corbyn much of a chance in elections two years ago, but that ground game was crucial in denying Theresa May the majority she sought. As a result, she ended up too weak to push her version of a Brexit deal through Parliament.
Even so, the polling this time around looks dismal for Labor. A YouGov estimate on Nov. 27 showed the Conservatives finishing with 43 percent of the popular vote and 359 seats in Parliament, an absolute majority. Labor would end up with 211 seats and 32 percent of the vote. The Conservatives would add 47 seats – 44 of them taken from Labor.
That’s not a reflection of how the British public feels about Brexit. If anything, opinion has moved against it slightly and consistently. It’s more about how the British election system is built, and Corbyn’s inability to get out of his own way.
With a number of parties, including Labor, Scottish and Welsh parties, the Greens and Liberal Democrats, dividing the opposition vote, all the Conservatives have to do is end up with the highest number in enough districts. No absolute majority is needed.
Labor is much more popular among younger voters, and Corbyn excited his base with a left-wing platform – but there probably aren’t enough of those voters. YouGov’s polling indicates that one you hit 40 years old, every age group prefers the Conservatives. Meanwhile, Corbyn never has been able to stake out a clear position on Brexit. His latest formulation is that he would stay neutral if another referendum were held. And he hasn’t been able to put accusations of anti-Semitism within Labor’s ranks behind him. This past week, Corbyn found himself on the defensive over suggestions by Britain’s chief rabbi that he is unfit for office.
Where does Trump fit into all this?
Conservative Party leaders know three things. First, Trump is very unpopular in Britain. YouGov says only 18 percent of those polled have a positive opinion of him; 67 percent have a negative opinion. Those who like Trump also tend to like Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Only 10 percent of those polled said a Trump endorsement would help a British politician, while 54 percent said it would hurt.
Even so, Trump loves to insert himself into British politics (here is a long, handy list). He added to it when he called in to a radio show hosted by staunch Brexit politician Nigel Farage on Oct. 31 to praise Johnson and trash Corbyn.
Finally, Conservatives realize that because he’s so unpopular, he could hurt their cause by opening his mouth – and there is nothing they can do about it. “Trump could say anything,” a Conservative campaign official was quoted as saying. “It’s a very unwelcome disruption.”