Exactly one week before the UK’s general election, there is little to suggest the ruling Conservatives’ apparent lead – according to opinion polls – is about to be overturned. But such is the state of uncertainty that even the Tories are nervous. Confident predictions are rare.
The potential for “voter churn” – the propensity of people to switch party allegiance – is thought to be particularly high in a national vote totally overshadowed by the UK’s relationship with Europe.
Pollsters say the crucial question is not who “wins”, but whether the Tories will gain an overall majority – or at least enough seats to enable Boris Johnson to deliver his pledge to “get Brexit done” by January 31.
Regurgitated time and time again by the prime minister and his supporters, the slogan is hotly contested for being misleading – but is arguably the only memorable phrase to have emerged in the campaign.
Other issues have come to the fore – notably the future of Britain’s health service, and security in the wake of an appalling terror attack. Political parties have been castigated for employing dubious tactics and touting lies.
A dirty game
The state of politics in Britain was seen as dire even before the campaign began. A startlingly high number of MPs announced they were standing down amid complaints of a particularly toxic atmosphere. Many have received death threats, and abuse on social media is common.
Boris Johnson’s move to suspend parliament in September was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court. Similar accusations of foul play have also been levelled at the Conservatives over their campaign tactics.
The Tories were accused of misleading the public after rebranding a Twitter account as “factcheckUK” during a TV party leaders debate. It then proceeded to pump out pro-Conservative claims.
Whether the crude impersonation fooled many voters is uncertain – Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said “no-one gives a toss” – but arguably it was an attempt to muddy the waters still further in the debate over trust and the role of social media.
The Conservatives have also been called out for setting up a website purporting to showcase Labour’s manifesto just before the opposition party unveiled its real election programme. The party was ordered to take down a Facebook advert using film of BBC journalists, which the corporation said “distorts our output”.
Opposition parties have also been criticised. Labour activists have been accused of intimidation and aggressive advertising. The Liberal Democrats were condemned for peddling disinformation by distributing campaign material dressed up as fake local newspapers.
Broadcasters have not been immune from criticism – although Channel 4 was cleared of bias by the media regulator after it replaced Boris Johnson with an ice block in a TV debate on climate change, because the prime minister had declined to appear.
'Lies, lies and more lies'
A key moment in one televised debate came when Boris Johnson’s claim that truth matters was greeted with laughter from the audience.
The prime minister has been challenged many times for the veracity of his comments, on matters ranging from post-Brexit trade arrangements to hospital-building. Such is Johnson’s reputation that a website is dedicated to his alleged falsehoods, and those of other leading Tories.
Others to have been accused of deceit include the interior minister Priti Patel – accused by pro-EU campaigners of populist “dog whistling” for wrongly claiming that EU border laws enabled terrorists to enter the UK “by exploiting free movement”. Meanwhile, Labour accused health minister Matt Hancock of making disingenuous claims about the number of new nurses a Conservative government would recruit.
The main opposition party is also under the spotlight, for claiming that its tax-and-spend plans would help families save thousands of pounds. The Centre for Policy Studies, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and the fact-checking organisation Full Fact have all taken Labour’s plans apart.
However, perhaps the most questionable claim is the government’s central campaign theme. Many politicians, diplomats, trade experts and commentators agree that far from getting Brexit “done”, the UK’s EU exit itself resolves nothing regarding its future relations with Europe.
The prime minister raised eyebrows by replying “yes” when asked whether people would stop talking about Brexit after the end of January. “The parliamentary agony will be over, and the political agony will be over,” he told ITV’s Robert Peston.
All to play for – but little sign of a major shift
Last week a survey by YouGov suggested an electoral picture that if replicated at the election, would give the Conservatives a 68-seat majority. Its polling model has been praised for being accurate in the past, where others had proved wide of the mark.
However, the Conservatives are said to have little margin for error: even a relatively small drop in support could torpedo an overall majority. The nature of the electoral system means what happens in marginal seats is crucial – and many have witnessed contradictory signs over voting intentions. Meanwhile, the performance of the Scottish National Party (SNP) could also have a decisive impact.
Broadly, opinion polls suggest the Conservatives have picked up support at the expense of the Brexit Party – while Labour has also benefited at the expense of the Liberal Democrats.
Above all, not for nothing has this been described as Britain’s 'Brexit election'. The theme defined by the 2016 EU referendum is still of paramount importance. The challenge for the main parties in the last few days is to secure support at the ballot box, from voters who seem largely entrenched in “leave” and “remain” camps.