Artillery Row

Wanderer above the sea of clods

The next month might be maddening but it will not be dull

I open this weekly general election column with a world exclusive: my campaign diary for the weeks ahead.

From June 16 until July 2 I will be watching the European Championship — though Gareth Southgate is aware that I’m willing to stand in for Jude Bellingham if necessary.

That is, with the exception of the period between June 26 and June 30, during which I will — and please keep this news under your hat — co-star in a sensational appearance at Glastonbury with Avril Lavigne.

Then, bookending one end of the campaign, there’s the Derby tomorrow, though it isn’t yet clear whether I will be drafted in as a jockey or a horse. And bookending the other, there is Wimbledon, which opens on July 2.

Not to mention Trooping the Colour on June 15, Taylor Swift on tour from June 7 to 23, Pride Month…but you get the picture. Perhaps much other than politics happens during any six week period. (With or without Donald Trump.)

But the run-up to polling day seems exceptionally busy to me — a consequence perhaps of Rishi Sunak’s decision to go for the first July election since 1945. This can only help the party with a soaring lead in the polls.

Which is, of course, not his. The long and short of the first week of the campaign — Diane Abbott, National Service, Ed Davey photo-stunts, VAT, Mark Logan and all — is that the polls haven’t so much as twitched. Labour still leads the Conservatives by 22 points.

Punch those figures into Electoral Calculus and Labour flashes up with a 340 seat majority — five short of 500 seats, with the Conservatives on 77.

Now Electoral Calculus is a crude measure, the polls may be overstating Labour or even, with the next word in inverted commas, “wrong” (since polls aren’t forecasts).

All the same, Keir Starmer is set to enter Number Ten on July 5 — as political journalists endlessly rework metaphors about ming vases and polished floors.

Actually, even were Sir Keir to fumble the vase — and it to shatter into a thousand fragments — voters would doubtless blame the effing Tories. Maybe I’m wrong on that point.

Nonetheless, there seems to me, voter disengagement notwithstanding, a strange mood abroad — or rather here. Perhaps, as the Critic’s Editor believes, it’s something to do with the skittish, erratic weather.

For no fewer than 46 per cent of YouGov’s panel think that Sir Keir is doing badly as Labour leader. Insofar as his promises mean anything, he’s broken them.

Higher income tax for the top five per cent of earners, an end to tuition fees, nationalised utilities — the commitments of his campaign for the Labour leadership have served their purpose and been methodically euthanised.

A reddish flag has been swapped for the Union Jack. Beneath it can be glimpsed a nasty, vindictive, and most un-New Labour taste for class war. Slap VAT on private school fees and damn the consequences.

Bring back the pensions cap — but exempt NHS staff. If you want a picture of the future for Labour candidates, imagine a boot stamping on Lloyd Russell-Moyle’s face — forever.

In short, no-one much seems to want a Labour landslide. But if the polls don’t change — and are then right — we’re heading for one. All Sir Keir has to do is sit tight, the mess he’s made of Diane Abbott’s status notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, while the Opposition behaves like a government, playing it safe, the Government must behave like an opposition — taking risks to seize attention.

Team Sunak has calculated that inflation may tick up again, interest rates prove sticky, the European Court of Human Rights challenge the Rwanda scheme…and that, in any event, the electorate won’t listen to the Conservatives.

Hence Number Ten’s decision to gamble on the only event that might make it change its mind — voting itself: forcing the electorate to make a choice rather than vent to pollsters.

There’s a saying ascribed to Dominic Cummings — which, like some of his others, requires an apostrophe or two: “do crazy sh*t”.

And crazy sh*t the Conservatives have appeared to be doing, at least if targeting their message on the oldest, most nostalgic, least future-facing section of the electorate isn’t to your taste.

But there is a method to this apparent madness — namely, to win back undecided former Conservative voters and claw back those Leave-flavoured, provincial ones who have decamped to Reform.

Now, prejudiced I may well be, but I think Downing Street and CCHQ is quite good at this stuff — not to mention putting pressure on Labour over tax and spending, as they did this week over VAT increases.

Sunak will now pin his hopes on next week’s ITV debate to shift the polls. And it may be that the Conservatives’ poll ratings indeed tick up. But what happens if they can’t get much above 30 per cent?

Here is the shape of things to come. If the polls move, the Conservatives will throw the kitchen sink, and then some, at Sir Keir in an effort to reach 35 per cent and higher.

If they don’t, expect the Conservative conversation to turn to: more leaks from within the campaign as the blame game gathers pace; future leader speculation; noises off from Boris Johnson.

Above all, a fledgling Tory debate will take flight. Should the Conservatives concede defeat, and urge voters not to give Labour a landslide? Or slog on in defiance of the electoral facts?

Meanwhile, the focus, at some point, will switch to Scotland. Abroad, a flare-up in Ukraine or Gaza would see Sunak seek to persuade voters that their security is safer with him.

Ed Davey will be fired from a circus gun as a human cannonball, or bungee jump without a rope, or be locked in a cage with lions, like the Rector of Stiffkey. God forbid he meets the same end.

Elsewhere, one of the gathering stories of this election campaign will gain pace: the developing split between Richard Tice and Nigel Farage.

The former wants to smash the Conservatives, the latter to woo them. Farage evidently sees himself as a major player in a post-Sunak Tory Party. Will he join? Could he be leader?

Hang on, though: what about Johnson? Might the two combine? What about Liz Truss?  Could they work with her? Would a new Conservative leader allow Farage onto the Tory candidates’ list? Would Johnson be admitted too?

Such are the delights that await us on the present trajectory. And all the while, Britain is challenged by demographic decline, a shift in wealth and power from working people, and the grisly emergence of ethno-religious politics. With which this election hasn’t even begun to engage.

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