Election Post #9: What would be a good result for the Conservatives?

June 5, 2017

On 23rd February 2017, a small piece of electoral history was made when the Conservative party won the Copeland by-election, becoming the first incumbent government to gain a seat at a parliamentary by-election without a defecting incumbent since the Brighouse and Spenborough by-election in 1964. The result was remarkable. Copeland and its predecessor seat, Whitehaven, had sent a Labour representative to the House of Commons since 1935. The Conservative share of the vote in Copeland rose by 8.5 percent and the party achieved a 6.7 percent swing against Labour. On the same night, Labour held Stoke-on-Trent Central but once again, the Conservative share of the vote increased. The increase in the Conservative share of the vote seemed to confirm the findings of the national opinion polls that were routinely giving the party massive leads over Labour. On 17th April, a YouGov poll put the Conservatives an eye watering 21 points ahead of Labour and within hours, the Prime Minister announced her intention to call a general election on 8th June. The result in Copeland and the Conservative standing in the opinion polls suggested that Theresa May was on course to win her party’s most convincing victory since 1935 with the potential to win around 400 seats with over 46 percent of the vote. A result at this level would eclipse Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victories in 1983 and 1987 and would take the Conservatives back to the 1950s in terms of electoral success. With the polls significantly narrowed, at least with certain pollsters, what would be a good result for the Conservatives?

In order to win three-figure majority, the Conservatives need to net an additional 44 seats. The easiest path for the Conservatives to get here is to take one seat from UKIP, one from the SNP and 42 from Labour. This means that target number 47, Coventry North West, is the seat that the party needs to aim for. In context, this constituency has voted Labour since its creation in February 1974 and would be considered a relatively safe seat under normal circumstances. With the Conservatives riding high in the national opinion polls over the last few months and rising into the mid to high 40s since the election was called, it seems plausible that Mrs May could achieve the 5 percent swing required to make the gains for a majority in the region of 100. This kind of swing would be unprecedented for a governing party, especially in its seventh year of office and only Margaret Thatcher has come close to it with a 4 percent swing in her 1983 landslide. Any swing bigger than this would be truly remarkable and would see seats in the North and Midlands, that have been held by the Labour Party for generations, fall to the Conservatives. It would be very difficult for the Labour Party to win the next general election if this were the outcome and they would find themselves in opposition for at least the next ten years. 

The party’s vote share also looks set to increase by a massive 8-10 percentage points. If the Conservatives were to pull this off, this would be a historic feat for an incumbent government. In the 19 general elections since the war, the incumbent party has only increased its share of the vote on five occasions. On one of the five occasions (1951) the government actually lost seats and subsequently lost the election and on another (2015), the opposition increased its share by a bigger percentage. The largest increase in share for an incumbent government since the war was 1966 when Harold Wilson achieved a 3.9 percent increase and won his largest parliamentary majority. The opinion polls suggest a vote share somewhere in the high 40s; no party has achieved a share of this level since 2001 and not since the 1950s have the Conservatives come close to 50 percent of the popular vote. A victory of this scale would leave Theresa May with considerable authority over both the Conservative Party and the House of Commons. She would be able to proceed with Brexit in her own image and would be able to put her stamp on policy in a similar way to Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. If the party makes gains in Scotland, and this is certainly a possibility, Nicola Sturgeon’s argument for a second independence referendum would diminish significantly. Inside the Conservative party, Mrs May would go down as a historic figure; held in similar regard to Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. 

Although an overall majority in excess of 100 would be the best scenario for Mrs May and the Conservative party, an overall majority in the region of 60 would still be positive and allow them to get the vast majority of their Brexit and domestic legislation through parliament. Although this would be a serious underperformance compared to some of the initial projections, many Conservatives will argue that the gap between them and Labour was always going to narrow come election day and in historical terms, this would still be a more than adequate working majority. The government would be able to comfortably survive a full five-year term and exert power over parliament without too much worry about the opposition. A result at this level would also just about justify the calling of the election and allow Mrs May to remain in post for a full term, should she want to. 

If the overall majority was to be between 12 and 40, things would begin to get a little more difficult for Theresa May. Her authority in the party would be damaged as well as with the electorate. Although the Conservatives will have increased their number of seats, it would be nowhere near the amount that was anticipated when the party was clocking 20 point leads. Indeed, if parliament ended up composed roughly the same as in 2015, many would question what the point of the election was. It would appear an expensive waste of time and Mrs May would end up being called out for making a decision in the interests of her party rather than the country. The opposition benches would remain strong and some members may even become more emboldened. Mrs May’s position as party leader and Prime Minister would come into question and she would certainly risk being toppled by her own party. If the country swung in the direction of the Labour Party mid-term, it would be much easier for them to win the next election than if the Conservatives had a majority of 60 or more. YouGov seems to be alone in a suggestion that a hung parliament is possible and its model does not seem to be moving significantly since they made their initial projection. If this were to come true on Thursday, then Mrs May’s leadership would immediately come under threat. She will have failed in her quest to seek a personal mandate. The election would be viewed as a spectacular failure and it would be very difficult for the Conservatives to appear a legitimate government having lost their overall majority. If parliament were messily hung, it would be unwise to rule out the possibility of a second election in the not so distant future. 

To conclude, everything is currently still on Mrs May’s side despite the narrowing of the opinion polls. Although Labour have bounced significantly since the election was called, there has been much speculation about where their support is coming from and their likelihood to vote. Add to this the reunification of the ‘right’ vote from UKIP to Conservative and the swing from Labour to Conservative in the Midlands and the North, Mrs May still looks set to achieve a commanding majority in the House of Commons. It may not quite be the Blair-esque majority of 180 that seemed possible 50 days ago but 375 seats and a Thatcherite scale win is still within reach. There is also a bit of a buffer-zone for the Prime Minister as the increased Conservative vote in Scotland could give the party up to 12 seats north of the border, allowing for some misses against Labour further down the party’s target list. With the party’s lead in the opinion polls shrinking, it is possible that many Conservative voters will turn-out on Thursday in fear of a Labour led government. On its own, this could be enough to deliver Mrs May a historic and premiership-defining landslide and the local election results on 4th May seemed to confirm that this was going to be the case. There is however, some genuine reason to be cautious. YouGov’s model may be an outlier but it may also be correct, polls that usually show larger Conservative leads have also narrowed significantly and finally, it is difficult to know whether Labour voters in Wales, the North and Midlands, that have voted Labour for generations, will change party alliance and vote Conservative for the first time when they stand in the polling station and mark their ballot. On balance, Mrs May’s gamble looks like it is going to pay off but, there is some genuine doubt as to whether she will achieve the landslide that she looked set to receive back in April.

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