The sound and fury of the British general election

By Lucas Grainger-Brown
PhD Candidate, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

On 12 December, the United Kingdom will return to the polls for the third time in just four years. The parliament that this election produces will finalise Brexit. Or at least, that’s the idea.

It is a winner-takes-all competition that neither major party in Britain seems able to win.

A no-deal Brexit is off the table for now thanks to the Benn Act, which is legislation that requires the Prime Minister to request a three month extension to the Article 50 period if no Brexit deal has been legislated.

But it is still matters a great deal who is in government to negotiate Britain’s long-term relationship with the EU in 2020.

The most likely outcome is another minority Conservative government. However, the process of arriving at this null result will be complex, involving nine established parties and two new players.

The Incumbent: Conservative Party

The current British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, ideally needs an outright Conservative majority (326 out of 650 seats in the House of Commons) to have any hope of legislating his Brexit deal in January 2020.

His deal is the same as the former Prime Minister Theresa May’s, with some potentially inflammatory tweaks regarding Irish customs checks.

Prior to the election, Johnson held 298 of the 650 seats. His predecessor Theresa May had been struggling along with 317 Conservative seats and a partnership with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland.

But, Johnson shattered this working majority by expelling 21 of his own MPs and negotiating a Brexit deal that the DUP could not support.

At present, the Conservatives are polling at around 39 per cent of the vote. How many seats this actually translates to is dependent on local factors and the relative support for other parties; as a guide, Theresa May secured 42.3 per cent in 2017.

The Chancellor’s recent budget indicates that the Tories are planning flashy public spending announcements that could help them in traditionally Labour-loyal electorates in the north of England.

The Challenger: Labour Party

Labour is starting its campaign with 243 seats, down from 262 the party won in the 2017 election.

Internal resistance to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure is the main reason for the decrease in MPs. However, Corbyn’s impressive campaigning ability is also the party’s greatest hope of winning the election. In the 2017 general election, his team closed a 23 per cent polling gap against the Conservatives to end up with 40 per cent of the vote.

Currently, the party is polling at around 28 per cent a month out from election day. All eyes will be on Corbyn to see if he can manage a repeat performance to bring them into real contention.

Labour will try to focus on the domestic and economic issues that underlie the Brexit vote, but their convoluted position on Brexit is a liability.

In brief, Labour’s plan is to renegotiate Johnson’s deal and then hold a second referendum contrasting detailed Leave and Remain options, but at this point, Labour won’t say which position the party actually endorses.

Remain's Last Chance: The minor parties

They may be referred to as the minor parties, but some are major players in this election.

Prior to the election, seven of them and a collection of independents held 109 seats. Collectively they will likely retain the balance of power in the next parliament.

The four nationalist parties are the most important grouping, with a total of 56 seats.

The DUP feels betrayed by Boris Johnson and are likely to play hardball in any potential future coalition.

The other three parties want to remain in the EU and support a second referendum.

While the Irish republican party, Sinn Féin, never attends parliament and Plaid Cymru from Wales average between two and four seats, the Scottish National Party, with 35 seats, is one to watch.

In the 2015-17 parliament, they held 56 seats and could hit into the same ballpark this time around.

The Liberal Democrats are the other minor party to watch with a baseline of 20 seats and national polling at 16 per cent.

They are the most pro-EU party, having promised to revoke Article 50 and end Brexit.

The party has also formed an electoral alliance with the Greens and the Independent Group for Change – made up of five former Labour and Tory MPs – to try and maximise the number of anti-Brexit MPs in the 2020 parliament.

New Players and the Road Ahead

Two unknown variables in this election will take up a lot of Conservative concentration.

One is Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, which has been polling between eight and ten per cent, but is unlikely to win a seat given its geographically dispersed base.

The 24 independents are another wild card; many are Conservative refugees from Johnson’s purge.

The Conservatives need to fend off the minor parties, regain their purged independents and take seats from Labour in order to reach 326 on their own.

Labour has an uphill battle and can realistically only reach 326 through a convoluted Remain coalition with several minor parties.

The Tories are better placed, but it is unlikely a stable majority will emerge, meaning a return to parliamentary gridlock.

Sound and fury aside, this election may in fact end up signifying nothing.

Banner image: Pro-Brexit, anti-European Union, Leave protesters demonstrating in Westminster, London, England. Source: Getty Images

The University of Melbourne is livestreaming a Q+A roundtable, Britain has voted … now what?. Join Professor Philomena Murray, Associate Professor Timothy Lynch and Dr Tom Daly, along with host Annika Smethurst, as they break down the UK’s general election result – and look at the implications for Brexit, Europe and the world. We want to hear from you with your questions and comments on  Facebook LiveTwitter Periscope or YouTube Live  – so join us online on Tuesday 17 December 2019 between 6-7pm AEDT.


politics; election Politics; Election western-europe; united-kingdom Western Europe; United Kingdom

Election Watch: Past Editions