December election will do few favours to Boris Johnson, Brexit and Britain – Andrew Vine

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IT isn’t often you find consensus between Conservative and Labour activists, but those I’ve been talking to over the past few days share one view – they really don’t fancy the idea of a winter general election.

Canvassing in weather when voters are reluctant to leave their nice warm living rooms to stand on the doorsteps discussing Brexit is part of it, and so is the potential difficulty in getting the electorate out when darkness falls so early.

Do you support a December election?

Do you support a December election?

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But the oddity of running a campaign at a time of year that feels alien to a country accustomed to going to the polls in spring or summer isn’t the only thing causing unease.

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There’s a jumpiness about the whole idea of an election at this point, a sneaking suspicion that it might not solve anything or point the way out of the morass that Brexit has become.

Would Boris Johnson win a general election?

Would Boris Johnson win a general election?

Neither the Labour nor Conservative people who have talked to me are confident of winning, or comfortable with what they need to sell voters in the bleak midwinter.

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For different reasons, both are reaching the same conclusion – the time just isn’t right, and what might seem like a good idea to the fevered party machines in London looks a lot less good in Yorkshire seats where some hard battles will be fought.

They have a shared worry that a late 2019 or early 2020 election is going to have an unsettling sense of déjà vu about it by turning into 2017 all over again, producing a weak government – whoever wins – dependent on the unreliable support of self-serving smaller parties.

Boris Johnson wants a general election to break the Brexit deadlock.

Boris Johnson wants a general election to break the Brexit deadlock.

The debacle of two years ago shook the confidence of a lot of Conservatives I know in our county, and they have never fully regained it.

Yes, they know that Boris Johnson knocks Theresa May into a cocked hat when it comes to campaigning, yet the fact he retains a commanding lead over Jeremy Corbyn in every opinion poll, despite the Government’s difficulties, isn’t buoying their spirits in the way they feel it should.

That’s because they also know that he’s essentially treading the same path as Mrs May in pinning hopes of an election victory on picking up the votes of Labour supporters who backed Brexit.

And that means making a lot of headway in urban Yorkshire seats, and across the North, which Tory activists on the ground just don’t see happening.

As one seasoned campaigner put it to me: “We’re supposed to sell Boris in the old coalfields and the mill towns that have voted Labour since before the war? There’s no chance.”

Besides the difficulty of doing that, there are some sleepless nights being had over the threat from the Brexit Party, thanks to Nigel Farage’s knack for barnstorming performances on the campaign trail.

Another worry over an election in the next two or three months has less to do with traditional party loyalties than one of the issues on which the Conservatives are eternally vulnerable – the NHS.

A vote could come slap bang in the middle of the winter crisis that befalls it without fail every year. The number of admissions soar, hospitals struggle to cope and senior medical staff warn that the service is strained to its limits.

The images that might define a Tory campaign could easily be those of elderly people on trollies in hospital corridors because there are not enough beds, or ambulances queuing outside accident and emergency departments at breaking point. What a gift that would be to opposition parties, putting the Tories on the defensive and potentially changing the entire course of the campaign.

In normal circumstances, this sort of angst in the ranks of the traditional foe would be prompting unbridled glee amongst the Labour members I know.

But it isn’t. Its activists share the unease of many Labour MPs that Jeremy Corbyn is electoral poison and voters simply do not see him as fit to be Prime Minister.

They know instinctively that up against a Government so weak and hamstrung by divisions, their party ought to be surging ahead, yet its ratings remain stubbornly low and many believe its leader is to blame. He came nowhere near beating Theresa May two years ago, and they can’t see him doing any better against Boris Johnson.

In Yorkshire, there is anxiety amongst grassroots members that seats will be lost to the Lib Dems or Greens – especially if the two parties agree electoral pacts to give one or the other a clear run as a credible centre-left option on the ballot paper.

It is yet another oddity of the disconcerting political atmosphere Brexit has created that the two biggest parties, usually so keen to take each other on, should be full of reservations about doing so.

For both, it could be a very hard winter ahead. And not just because of the weather.