Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
We expect there to be a winner in an election. At some point this Friday, we assume, either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn will hoarsely address a crowd of exhausted but exhilarated supporters, declaring victory and promising – depending on which of them wins – either to get Brexit done or to do in the bourgeoisie.
But what if it’s a draw?
Yes, I know, according to the poll of polls, the Conservatives are 10 points ahead of Labour. Mr. Johnson may be a bluffer, but Mr. Corbyn is irreparably tainted by his association with anti-semitism. This should all end with a nice, fat, double-digit Tory majority.
But here are a few reasons why Tories should curb their optimism, aside from the well-known unreliability of British opinion polls. First, history. If you count the general elections of 2010 and 2017 as wins — in the sense that the Tory leader became prime minister after them, despite lacking a majority in the House of Commons — the Conservatives have won the past three British general elections. The last time the Conservatives won a fourth election in a row was in 1992, when John Major only just scraped home with a majority of 21 (a result not predicted by the polls).
There is no other example of four consecutive election victories in British political history.
Here’s another reason for Conservative concern. Across social-media platforms, Mr. Corbyn leads all other political figures in terms of both followers and engagement. On Facebook, Mr. Corbyn has almost 1.6 million followers, compared with less than 800,000 for Mr. Johnson. On Facebook and Twitter, Nigel Farage has more followers than Mr. Johnson. Indeed, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has nearly as many Facebook followers as the Prime Minister.
What’s more, Mr. Corbyn posts to Facebook more often than Mr. Johnson and his page’s posts — especially his videos — are far more widely shared. The Labour Leader’s following on Instagram has increased dramatically during the election campaign. From November 11 to December 5, his follower count rose 28 per cent. In the same period, Mr. Johnson’s followers grew by just 9 per cent.
In short, this isn’t over, despite what financial markets think (the pound is up to $1.31), and despite what prediction markets imply.
So what if we don’t get a decisive result next week? What if the Tories come up just short of a majority? If you want to know what a deadlocked democracy looks like, visit Holland, where a coalition took 208 days of negotiation in 2017.
Or take a trip to Israel. After April’s election was effectively a draw, it had to have another election in September. Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party emerged slightly ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, but neither leader was able to form a government. Last month, Mr. Netanyahu was indicted on charges of breach of trust, bribery and fraud. He’s still clinging on as Prime Minister, but it looks increasingly likely that there will need to be yet another election.
Ask yourself what the consequences might be if something similar happens next year in the United States?
What if the result next November is as close as it was in 2000? Remember those nail-biting days? George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore. Everything hinged on who won Florida, with its 25 electoral college votes. On the night, the networks called it — first for Mr. Gore, then for Mr. Bush, then for neither. The returns showed that Mr. Bush had won the state, but by such a slender margin (just 537 votes) that state law required a recount. A 36-day legal battle culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided by five votes to four to end the recount.
In 2000, Mr. Gore ultimately accepted defeat with a modicum of grace, grew a beard and went off to save the planet. But two decades have changed U.S. political culture for the worse. I find it hard to imagine Mr. Trump and the Make America Great Again-hat-wearing faithful being so stoical if he is denied a second term by hanging chads or their equivalent in Michigan — especially as there is every reason to fear more foreign meddling in 2020, including direct interference with the far from secure voting systems in various states. Conversely, many Democrats would lose their minds if this Supreme Court, with its two Trump appointees, voted to give him four more years.
“I’ve never played for a draw in my life,” my fellow Ferguson, Sir Alex, former head coach of Manchester United, once said. Wise words. May Mr. Johnson – and all voters who care for the U.K. – heed them this week. It’s not just Britain that needs a win. Democracy does.
©Niall Ferguson/The Sunday Times, London