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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson Image Credit: AP

The UK general election enters its second full week on Monday with the party manifestos on the cusp of their release. This important phase of the campaign comes as the most important question is now whether, as in 2017, Labour can stage a mid-election recovery in the polls to dent the lead of Conservatives.

The forthcoming release of party manifestos comes after the drama of last week when Nigel Farage announced that he will not field Brexit Party candidates in any of the 300-plus constituencies which the ruling Conservatives won at the last election. The move could provide a further fillip to Boris Johnson’s Tory party.

The scale of the Conservative lead in opinion surveys is indicated by Electoral Calculus (EC), based on a ‘poll of polls’ from November 6 to 12, which asserts that there is a 60 per cent chance that Johnson’s party will win only its second majority government since the early 1990s. Indeed, the EC indicates that the Conservatives are on course for a majority of more than 50 seats, the largest Tory win since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

It is in this context that Farage made his announcement last week, in a major U-turn, that he will not seek to challenge the Conservatives in seats that were won by the ruling party in 2017. This change of mind has been criticised by opposition parties as the advent of a “Trump alliance” suggesting that a secret hard-Brexit pact may have been struck between Johnson and Farage, both of whom are admired by the US president.

Labour could still upset the polls, again, is if the framing of the ballot moves decisively from Brexit to a wider prism of issues such as the economy, the National Health Service, and/ or ‘law and order’.

- Andrew Hammond

The net impact of Farage’s decision is unclear: it may enable the Tories to retain more seats it currently holds, such as Blackpool North and Cleveleys, which are Labour targets. Yet, the Brexit Party’s decision to run candidates in other seats could prevent Johnson’s party winning a number of seats held by Labour, such as Stoke Central, as the vote could now be split in three main directions with many pollsters asserting that Farage takes more votes off the Conservatives than Labour.

Farage’s decision, which therefore injects further uncertainty into the race, is being justified by him on the basis that he wants Johnson to win an outright majority and avoid another Brexit referendum which is being called for by Labour. Amid reports that Farage has been offered a seat in the House of Lords by the Tories, he also claims that he extracted a big concession by Johnson with the latter’s pledge to get the United Kingdom out of the EU by the end of 2019, and to pursue a hard-exit in the form a Canada-style free trade deal.

Monday’s Brexit Party news follows swiftly on the heels of the announcement that several of the most implacably pro-EU parties — the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru — have agreed a pact not to stand against each other in 60 seats in England and Wales to try to avoid splitting the Remain vote. The goal is to give pro-EU voters “one choice” in seats in South England; constituencies in Wales; and key seats in London.

Impact of Farage’s decision uncertain

The decisions of both the Leave and Remain sides to pursue these electoral arrangements are likely to increase the prospects of tactical voting on polling day, adding to the already unprecedented post-war UK voter volatility right now. In this fluid environment, traditional partisan voting patterns are eroding faster with nearly half the country voting for different parties across the three elections from 2010-17.

While the net impact of Farage’s decision remains uncertain, Johnson will now hope it will play into his election game plan, which is to try to frame the election as much as possible around Brexit. The prime minister perceives this represents his best opportunity to win an electoral mandate, although the strategy is not without risks as opposition parties try to morph Johnson into Farage in a hard Brexit alliance first suggested by Donald Trump. While this will appeal to many right-of-centre voters, it may dissuade Leave voters who traditionally support Labour from voting for Johnson given the toxicity of Trump.

Amid this turbulent landscape, and with around a month till election day, the key outstanding question is whether the Tories have a ‘lock’ on this election. Or, alternatively, if their lead could unravel again, as in 2017.

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Like May in 2017, Johnson could yet may make a series of big gaffes under pressure. While he appears to be a significantly more natural campaigner, he is untested in the intensity of a general election campaign.

The other way in which Labour could still upset the polls, again, is if the framing of the ballot moves decisively from Brexit to a wider prism of issues such as the economy, the National Health Service, and/ or ‘law and order’. Were this to happen, Johnson will not be able to fight on his chosen terrain.

The reason why Labour would like the campaign to focus on this wider agenda is the backstory of significant public sector cuts that have taken place since the international financial crisis. On the law and order agenda, for instance the party has campaigned for the re-recruitment of around 20,000 police officer positions which were cut back over the last decade.

Taken overall, the election is still not straight forward to forecast, despite Johnson’s significant polling lead. While surveys indicate the Conservatives look most likely to emerge as the largest single party, the volatility of the electorate means that a range of outcomes from a majority government to another hung parliament remain plausible.

— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics