Johnson’s pre-poll lead could wither away

Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited a primary school in Suffolk where he showed children old pictures of London. His opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, promised a crowd in London that the Labour Party would never sell out Britain’s National Health Service to greedy American companies. Then, shortly after 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nigel Farage, the insurgent leader of the Brexit Party, welcomed a special guest to his national radio show: President Donald Trump, calling in from Washington to disparage Mr. Corbyn and urge Mr. Johnson to forge a hard-line pro-Brexit alliance with Mr. Farage. In less than 30 minutes of drive-time banter, Mr. Trump had utterly scrambled the narrative, dominating the next day’s headlines. Mr. Johnson plans to run on a simple message: Get Brexit done quickly, under the agreement he negotiated with the European Union, so that Britain can embark on a shiny future of profitable trade deals with the United States and other countries. Battle of narratives Yet he, too, is a hostage to fortune, facing the danger that the narrative may shift unpredictably and in ways that hurt the Conservative Party. Something like that occurred in Mr. Farage’s interview with Mr. Trump, when the President said that Mr. Johnson’s Brexit deal would foreclose the possibility of a trade agreement with the United States. That undercut Mr. Johnson, who has made such a deal a major selling point for his plan and, indeed, the country’s future. Other dangers lurk, particularly in Britain’s winner-take-all electoral system, where the small Brexit Party could act as a spoiler, draining away just enough votes in enough closely contested districts to swing the balance of power in Parliament toward Labour. Mr. Johnson is starting out with an undisputed advantage. A poll released Thursday by Ipsos MORI showed the Conservatives leading Labour by 41% to 24% nationally. That would translate into a 108-seat Conservative majority in Parliament, according to Tony Travers, a professor of politics and London School of Economics. These are the kind of numbers that emboldened Mr. Johnson to call an election now. The Conservative Party is going after a swath of Labour seats in northern England and the Midlands, where people voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum and are frustrated that it has not happened. The party has identified a target voter, named “Workington Man,” for the coastal town of Workington, in northwest England, which is surrounded by remnants of the coal and steel industries. He is older, white, not college-educated, a lover of the rugby league and a Labour voter who supported leaving the European Union and feels left behind by the Britain of today. These voters care more about economic security than individual liberty. They favour putting additional police on the streets and toughening immigration policies, according to a study by the right-wing think tank Onward, which coined the phrase Workington Man. The problem for Mr. Johnson is that he has staffed his Cabinet with politicians who favour deregulation and free trade, viewing Britain’s future less as a Tory welfare state than as an agile free agent in the global economy — Singapore-on-Thames, to use the popular shorthand. How Mr. Johnson reconciles Singapore-on-Thames with Workington Man will be one of the tensions of the election.

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