17 November 2019
The country has endured forty-one months of uncertainty, propelled by the absence of losers’ consent, a weak prime minister, a rogue parliament, and a hand which the EU has played effectively or mischievously according to your lights, but in any event disruptively to national stability. There can be no doubt that this has deferred industrial investment. Even so, the strength of the economy has surprised everyone, so much so as partly to mask the effects of deferred house-buying and associated purchases of furnishing and other domestic effects. Mind you, the high street has made no secret of its difficulties.
There is now evidence that the election itself is adding to uncertainly. Although weekly retail figures are not available, cinema attendances serve as a surrogate for discretionary consumer spend. The table below shows these for the two weeks prior to 29 October, when the election was announced, and the two weeks since; together with comparable figures for the previous five years.
The table shows that receipts fell markedly after the election was called. The figures for the previous five years provide reason to exclude seasonality or coincidence - or even the horrible weather. The fall was smaller in 2018; there were rises in 2014 and 2017; and in 2015 the figures were distorted by the spectacular receipts for the Bond film, SPECTRE. Only in 2016 was the fall greater without a distorting event. This enables us to conclude that the fall this year is out of line with the figures for three out of the last four years for which there are comparable figures. The good news could be that pent-up demand caused by deferred expenditures may make for a bumper Xmas - but only if the current uncertainty is genuinely resolved.
A resolution along the lines of Remain or Revoke might once have delivered some kind of certainty. In the event, however, that ship seems to have sailed, with increasing evidence that Remainers are folding their tents in disarray. The People’s Vote campaign is close to collapse. The LibDem’s leader, Jo Swinson, doesn’t seem to take her own Revoke stance that seriously. She hopes to end up a power broker in a hung parliament which may never happen - see below - while declaring that she will not join any coalitions. If anything, the Labour party’s stance intensifies uncertainty by promising a referendum configured to exclude a major strand of popular opinion.
Meanwhile, for whatever it’s worth, Remain opinion-formers are communicating something closer to capitulation than anything we’ve seen so far: on 12 November, the FT announced the retirement of its vehemently Remain editor; on 15 November, the Economist’s UK columnist acknowledged that the politics of Europhilia has failed in this country; and on the same day, the London School of Economics published a long-form blog whose headline began, “The Brexiteers might have succeeded…”.
If these straws in the wind are reliable as conveying the direction of travel, then certainty can only attach to an outcome embracing Leave. Me, I preferred no deal as crystallising the position, but now that also seems off the cards. The most that can be hoped for is a Tory majority, unextended dates for departure and transition, and prompt establishment of arms-length trade. Unfortunately, the first stage in this project has not been helped by Tory clumsiness with Nigel Farage last week. The trouble is that Conservatives just don’t like him - worse, they don’t get him. They take his saloon-bar manner as denying his shrewdness, self-discipline and commitment. The outcome at time of writing leaves the Brexit Party with 274 candidates, many of whom threaten to split the Leave vote in Labour marginals. This is bad for the Tories and the Leave camp.
The wisdom of crowds was unreliable in 2017, with spread-betting odds overestimating Tory seats by forty or so on polling day. This means we should be cautious of odds which imply that the chances of a Tory win are 65% and spread-betting figures which imply a Tory majority of 17. The opinion polls have not yet fully modelled the effect of the partial withdrawal of Brexit Party candidates, with raw figures encouraging the Tories but too early in the campaign to rule out Labour taking more from the Lib Dems than Tories from the Brexit Party. These uncertainties are amplified by regional differences which national polls fail fully to capture. The Electoral Calculus site purports to take such matters into account and predicts a Tory majority of 30. But they too overestimated the Tory vote last time. These circumstances make it understandable that the public should be slowing discretionary expenditure. It also tells us that the popular mood is ready for an electoral line which frames the choice in the simplest possible manner: bring an end to uncertainty.