David Gauke is a former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary.
This is the first general election in 32 years in which I am not campaigning for the Conservative Party and the first in 22 years where I have not been a Conservative candidate. Given that this is not a time for half measures, I am not just sitting out this election but standing to win my old Parliamentary seat as an independent.
During the past couple of weeks, I have spent most waking hours talking to voters in South West Hertfordshire – whether in the high streets, outside train stations, on the doorstep or in pubs and coffee shops. I have spoken to thousands of people of all political persuasions.
This gives me an unusual perspective as to the state of public opinion and what is likely to happen in the election. But before setting that out, I should state a couple of qualifications.
First, as with most Parliamentary candidates, I find myself following the national news less than I would normally. There isn’t the time to read the newspapers, scroll down Twitter or watch or listen to the news as I would usually.
Second, this election is clearly going to be more local than any other one in recent times. There won’t be a uniform national swing one way or another. In my seat, there is the added complication that I am standing, so extrapolating what is happening here only gives a partial story. What is happening in Berkhamsted and Rickmansworth won’t tell you what is happening in Birkenhead and Redcar.
With those caveats, how does this election look to me?
Before turning to the political parties, it is worth saying a word or two about attitudes to Brexit. It is clear to me that we remain as polarised as ever. People either want to leave and are not that bothered about how as long as it constitutes ‘a proper Brexit’ (in other words, prominent Brexiteers back it) or they want to remain. Some of us have long argued for a compromise whereby we leave the institutions but maintain good access to EU markets. Sadly, such an approach will leave nearly everyone dissatisfied. That option is not on the table and it won’t come back to the table. The choice is stark; we will end up with either a hard Brexit or no Brexit.
Turning to the parties, let’s start with Labour. They achieved a respectable second place in South West Hertfordshire last time and won over lots of middle class votes. Much of the national focus has been on Labour Leavers in the north and midlands, but the evidence from here is that they have a problem with their middle class voters.
There is little enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn, and no sign that he is cutting through to the public in the way that he did in 2017. The chances of a Labour majority look vanishingly small. However, that Labour vote is very anti-Boris Johnson. It won’t go Conservative, but it will turn out and vote to try to stop the Conservatives.
It is harder for me to assess the Liberal Democrats. I am not going to dwell on the situation in South West Hertfordshire, but the question most Liberal Democrats are asking themselves here is who is best placed to defeat the Conservatives. Of course, I was disappointed that they decided to stand in South West Hertfordshire, but there was a view in the party at a national level that the Liberal Democrats would still get second spot here even if I stood. A couple of weeks in to the campaign, there are very few Liberal Democrats locally who still think that.
Turning to the national situation, I am surprised that they are not doing better. There is definitely a hunger for a revived centre ground and I would not rule out them overturning some substantial majorities. Notwithstanding my little local difficulty, I think Jo Swinson is underrated. In my experience, she is smart, principled and likeable. They have not cut through yet but I don’t think it is too late for them to make progress.
And the Conservatives? I have frequently used these columns to warn that the strategy of the Conservative leadership risks losing the support of longstanding moderate supporters. I have talked to hundreds of such people in recent days and that risk is real.
The Brexit policy is a problem for many, and I will say more about that in a moment. There is also distaste at some of the methods. The disregard for normal standards of behaviour – the prorogation of Parliament, the criticism of the Supreme Courts, last week’s nonsense over the ‘FullFactUK’ twitter name – feeds in to a sense that this is a Party that believes in winning at all costs and is reckless as to what happens afterwards. It is all just a little too much like the 2016 Vote Leave campaign.
Trust is a problem. The endless spending and tax cut pledges all sound too good to be true. There is a sense that promises are being made but neither those making the promises nor those hearing the promises really believe they will all be delivered. Mind you, there was that sense during Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party leadership campaign and it didn’t do him too much harm.
In seats in the south east, I expect that longstanding Tories will desert their former party. However, the national polls look encouraging for the Conservatives.
Two factors are helping. First, the fear of Corbyn is strong. Understandably, people want to vote to stop him.
Second, there has been little scrutiny of what Boris Johnson’s Brexit policy will mean.
Refusing to extend the implementation period beyond 2020 means that there is not time to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement. An agreement in that time would mean signing up to continued alignment (which the Prime Minister has ruled out) or a barebones deal which looks remarkably like a No Deal Brexit. The Government’s stated objective of a bespoke deal is simply not negotiable in that time frame.
We are on course for a WTO Brexit at the beginning of 2021. Given the opinion polls, the media’s attention would be best focused on the implications of such an outcome for the country. I believe it would be immensely damaging for it but we are sleepwalking towards such a disaster. That this has been a relatively minor issue in the election so far is something the country will come to regret.
So, in summary, where do things stand nationally? Labour struggling because of Corbyn; the Lib Dems not cutting through; the Conservatives winning by default but with the public distrustful and its central policy under-scrutinised. The electorate are sceptical about all the parties and many voters have yet to make up their minds.
There may be a twist or two left in this election yet.