Top 3 Developments
• London Bridge attack dominates campaign
• Four Brexit Party MEPs leave party and urge public to vote Conservative
• Trump doesn’t make major election intervention as world leaders gathered in UK for NATO summit
General Election Update
No hesitation for exploitation
Last Friday afternoon, two Cambridge graduates, Jack Merrit (25) and Saskia Jones (23), were murdered during a prison education and rehabilitation conference being held on the north end of London Bridge. In 2011, the killer was convicted for liaising with a London based al Qaeda-inspired group planning to bomb the London Stock Exchange. He was thus found guilty for engaging in conduct in preparation for acts of terrorism, a crime with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. However, he was instead given a sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) for 16 years and released after eight years due to a 2008 Bill, passed by a Labour government, allowing offenders to be automatically released halfway through their sentence without a review by the Parole Board.
With the attack taking place less than two weeks before the General Election, it should come as no surprise that it shot up the political agenda. The morning after the attack, Boris Johnson quickly took an aggressive stance on the issue, presumably to avoid the vulnerability which saw Theresa May attacked for police cuts in the aftermath of the 2017 London Bridge attack. During his interview on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Johnson blamed Labour’s ‘left-wing government’ for the attack arguing that the murderers release from prison was ‘ridiculous and repulsive’ and used the opportunity to argue for tougher sentencing for terrorist related crimes. Whilst, Mr Johnson was able to argue that a review had been ordered into 74 other convicted terrorists released on licence, questions over what he had done as foreign secretary and as Mayor of London caused a sticking point.
In response to the Prime Minister statements, Jack Merrit’s father, David, criticised the Conservative use of the attack for ‘political capital’ stating that Jack would ‘not wish his death to be used as the pretext for more draconian sentences or for detaining people unnecessarily’.
However, it was not just the Conservatives who tried to use the attacks to make political gain. Jeremy Corbyn argued that such attacks were a result of foreign wars, which he has famously opposed, and blamed Conservative cuts to policing saying ‘you cannot protect the public on the cheap’. In an interview with Sophy Ridge, Corbyn also stated that he does not believe terrorists should necessarily serve their full prison sentences. Whilst this is a position which may have gained sympathy from Jack and Saskia, both who were advocates of helping to reform and rehabilitate offenders, it is also a position which is being exploited by the Conservatives, and the more supportive newspapers, in order to frame Corbyn as weak and a national security risk.
Consequently, whilst the UK terror threat has remained at ‘Substantial’, two levels below its highest level, the Conservative more hardline response to the attacks has polled substantially higher than Labour’s.
This week saw four Brexit Party MEPs leave the party and urge the public to back the Conservatives at the General Election. On Thursday, Annunziata Rees-Mogg, Lance Forman and Lucy Harris resigned the Brexit Party whip and stated that the Brexit Party was ‘now the very party risking Brexit’. Prior to this, on Wednesday, another MEP John Longworth lost the whip for criticising the party’s strategy and then urged voters to back the Conservatives.
Earlier in the campaign, the Brexit Party announced that it would not stand candidates in seats that had elected a Conservative MP in 2017, a move widely seen as helpful for the Tories and likely to enable them to retain several seats in the south west. However, the Brexit Party MEPs who resigned believe that the party’s decision to stand in Labour-held seats will split the leave vote and potentially jeopardise Brexit. Speaking to Andrew Neil in his primetime BBC interview, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage criticised the MEPs’ and suggested that their resignations were because of close personal links to the Conservative Party.
Currently, the Brexit Party stands at about 4% in the opinion polls and its vote share has steadily declined since the party announced its decision not to stand in Conservative seats. However, it is still polling well in several leave-supporting Labour-held seats in the north of England and could prevent the Conservative Party from gaining these seats. What is clear is that the Brexit Party is in serious decline and the erosion of its vote share in these final days of the campaign may continue.
Trump (NA)toes the line
Those who were expecting Donald Trump’s arrival in the UK to derail election campaigns this week were largely disappointed as the President was unusually restrained in his comments on the election. Frosty relations at the 70th Anniversary NATO summit, following the threats of tariffs on French goods, only took a turn for the worse after a leaked video of world leaders seemingly mocking Trump at a reception in Buckingham Palace. This led to a hasty exit from the President who cancelled his final press conference to return to America. Overall, the Tory campaign will be sighing with relief that the President’s visit did not make too many waves, and his denial of any interest in the NHS.
McDonnell’s domestic bliss
On Wednesday, the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell made a major speech in Birmingham in which he outlined Labour’s pledges on inequality. The choice of location is being interpreted as a sign that Labour is shifting its election tactics to focus on protecting seats in the midlands. This theory is bolstered by the findings of YouGov’s MRP election model last week, which suggested that numerous Labour seats in the region are at risk of being lost to the Conservatives.
The speech itself focused on a message to voters that they would be better off under a Labour government and McDonnell reiterated party pledges such as raising the living wage to £10 an hour and abolishing universal credit. He also used the speech to criticise the Conservatives’ record on living costs. The speech further shows Labour’s strategy of attempting to shift the election away from Brexit and on to domestic policy issues and is also being interpreted as a sign that Labour’s big-ticket announcements on free broadband, reduction in rail fares and nationalisations may not have been as popular as anticipated.
Swinson says sorry
Whilst Mr Johnson continues to avoid facing Andrew Neil in a one-on-one interview, Jo Swinson sat down for her 30 minutes of interrogation on Wednesday evening. Opening the discussion, Neil questioned the Liberal Democrat leader as to whether she had accepted that she is not running as a candidate to be the next Prime Minister. It seemed that even she has accepted this reality and that her declining popularity wasn’t going to make a U-turn by polling day. The interview scrutinised the Lib Dems for policies introduced whilst they were coalition partners, following the 2010 General Election. In contrast to Mr Corbyn’s refusal to say sorry for antisemitism in his party, Ms Swinson was upfront and apologised for policies she voted in favour of and now wants to revoke, such as the ‘bedroom tax’ which she voted in favour of nine times in government. On Brexit she conceded that a second referendum may be the only way to now stop Brexit but refused to accept that this goal would mean putting Mr Corbyn in Downing Street.
Which one will you choose?
Following a YouGov poll which put the Conservative party on 42 per cent and Labour on 33 per cent, Boris Johnson commented that ‘it’s a very tight election. It will go down to the wire’. Whilst his hesitation to show liking to the poll is likely to be an effort to ensure loyal Conservatives don’t get complacent, he is right to cast doubt on polling following their inaccuracy in recent election campaigns.
In an effort to judge the emotions and preferences of how essential swing voters are responding to the campaign, The Times, in conjunction with Public First, gathered 100 diverse swing voters from marginal constituencies across England and Wales. What was very clear from those gathered is that there is an overwhelming desire to stop talking about Brexit. One lady was quoted to say, ‘I’ve spent a lot of time watching the BBC news channel and heard nothing on any of the issues that I was really interested in…I heard nothing but Brexit’. Whilst this doesn’t necessarily mean they want to ‘Get Brexit Done’, it plays into Mr Johnson’s hands that Brexit is a central point in the election.
No party leader appeared personally popular with the room and there was a clear distrust of Mr Johnson. However, Mr Corbyn has failed to capitalise on this, and voters are cautious of his ability to act in the national security interest. Jo Swinson seemed cast out from the discussion as the swing voters had clearly made up their minds that it was again a two-party race.
Whilst the 100 people therefore remain undecided, one overwhelming point of certainty is that they were tired of the election, tired of the squabbling and eager to move on from the negativity and blame.
Taking on tech
The Prime Minister waded into the ongoing trade battle between Europe and the US around taxing big tech companies. This week Donald Trump escalated the battle by threatening 100% tariffs on all French goods including champagne, over their plans to impose a 3% revenue-based tax. Similar plans are in the works in the UK, and despite the US reaction, Johnson confirmed this week that the digital services tax in the Conservative Manifesto (marked at 2%) would be pushed forward in April until a global minimum could be agreed. Given the willingness of the Trump administration to use trade measures as a tool to protect US businesses, it remains to be seen how this tax could impact future UK-US trade agreement talks.
Upcoming Key Dates
• 12th December: UK Election.
• 31st January 2020: New Brexit Deadline.
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