Earlier this week two major political parties in the UK elected new leaders. The Liberal Democrats elected Jo Swinson as their new leader on Monday, and on Tuesday Boris Johnson was chosen as the new Conservative leader and subsequently Prime Minister. These two politicians have very little in common, however one of the few similarities between them is the situation in the constituencies they represent. Both have comparable majorities, and both could face a close contest in the next general election due to various factors, including well-known opponents and local issues.
Boris Johnson is the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, centred around the town of Uxbridge at the western end of Greater London. Johnson has represented this constituency since 2015, from 2001 to 2008 he was the MP from Henley, also Michael Heseltine’s constituency before then. The former Uxbridge constituency which existed from 1885 to 2010 was held by the Conservatives for 107 years, and by Labour for 18 years (1945-1959 and 1966-1970). Johnson’s predecessor there was John Randall, whose family owned a well-known local department store. Randall held the seat in 2010 with a majority of 11,216.
Johnson was selected for the seat in 2015 marking a return to Parliament after two terms as Mayor of London. In 2015 he won the seat with a majority of 10,695. However, in the 2017 general election his majority was halved to 5,034, as the Labour vote increased by 13.6%. This is significantly less then most of his Government colleagues, such as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (majority 23,298), Home Secretary Priti Patel (majority 18,646) and Chancellor Sajid Javid (majority 16,573), and it is also a lot less then his predecessor Theresa May (majority 26,457). Therefore, based on electoral statistics, Johnson is in a more precarious situation then most other senior Conservatives.
Labour are already targeting Uxbridge and South Ruislip, not only because it is the Conservative leader’s constituency, but also because they were runner-up in 2017, just over 5,000 votes behind Johnson. A swing away from the Conservatives towards Labour in the next general election could result in them narrowly taking the seat. This is unlikely but possible, and it would be the first time ever that a Prime Minister has lost their seat. The Lib Dems are also likely to target this seat, despite a disappointing result in 2017 in which they took only 1,835 votes. However, since then their vote has increased dramatically and in the European elections the Lib Dems emerged as London’s largest party. Having both Labour and the Lib Dems targeting the seat could benefit Johnson as they could split the vote allowing him to emerge victorious, as is one of the main problems with First Past The Post, but it might be the case that many voters tactically vote for whoever has the best chance of defeating Johnson, which in this case is probably Labour.
There is a very important local factor which could determine this election, namely the expansion of Heathrow Airport. When running in Uxbridge and South Ruislip for the first time in 2015, Johnson promised he would “lie down with you in front of those bulldozers and stop the building, stop the construction of that third runway.” But when he opportunity came to vote against it in Parliament, Johnson instead organised a flying visit to Afghanistan, which cost approximately £20,000, to avoid having to resign as Foreign Secretary. If expansion of Heathrow continues under Johnson’s leadership, it seems very likely that voters in his constituency, which is very close to Heathrow, will be disappointed and angry at him for his failure to commit to a promise made to his constituents, and they could respond by voting for another cancidate.
Jo Swinson is the MP for East Dunbartonshire, which is located north of Glasgow. It is a particularly interesting constituency, from 1950 to 1970 it was a reasonably safe Labour seat, until the Conservatives unexpectedly took it in February 1974, only to lose it to the SNP in October 1974 by 22 votes. It returned to Labour in 1979. This makes it the only seat in Scotland which has been represented by the Lib Dems, SNP, Labour and Conservatives.
Swinson first won the seat in 2005 with a majority of 4,061, becoming the youngest MP in that term. In 2010 she held the seat with a smaller majority, Labour were 2,184 votes behind. And in 2015 John Nicolson took the seat for the SNP, beating Swinson by 2,167 votes with a massive 29.8% increase in the SNP vote. Swinson regained the seat in 2017, a 4.3% increase in the Lib Dem vote plus a 10% decrease in the SNP vote ensured a Lib Dem gain with a majority of 5,339.
Of the twelve Lib Dem MPs elected in the 2017 general election, Swinson has the third largest majority, with only Vince Cable (Twickenham) and Wera Hobhouse (Bath) in a stronger position. That election was unusual for the party, as although they gained four seats overall, following the disastrous 2015 election, their overall vote was down from 7.9% to 7.4%. However, as mentioned earlier it seems inevitable that their vote will be significantly higher in the next general election, mainly due to their unambiguously pro-EU and anti-Brexit stance which clearly distinguishes them from the Conservatives and Labour. Also, looking at the 2017 election, the Lib Dems were extremely unlucky in several constituencies, such as North East Fife (2 votes), Richmond Park (45 votes), Ceredigion (104 votes) and St Ives (312 votes).
In the next general election, East Dunbartonshire is likely to be a straightforward contest between the Lib Dems and SNP, with the Conservatives and Labour much further behind in third and fourth place. Both of these parties are anti-Brexit, meaning the Brexit factor will not be as significant here as it will be in many English constituencies. Instead the dominant issue will probably be the question of Scottish independence. With the SNP advocating a second referendum on Scottish independence, Swinson and the Lib Dems could reasonably argue that they are the strongest choice for pro-UK voters in the constituency. This was an interesting aspect of the 2017 general election in Scotland, in which the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems all gained seats from the SNP, possibly because of tactical voting in this way. The constitutional question will undoubtedly play a central role in future Scottish elections, and East Dunbartonshire is one of the obvious places for such a contest to take place between a pro-UK leader and a prominent pro-independence candidate.
I think it is unlikely that Boris Johnson or Jo Swinson would lose their seat at the next general election, as party leaders benefit from the high profile. Boris Johnson will have to make a decision on Heathrow at some point which may damage his chances of re-election, while an increase in support for Scottish independence could complicate things for Jo Swinson. Nonetheless, the prospect of a major political party losing its leader makes the next general election one to watch closely.