Careful what you wish for: political edition

Philip Coggan
2 min readJun 6, 2024

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In early 2016, several of my American friends were excited. They thought that Donald Trump’s progress towards the Republican nomination guaranteed victory for the Democrats in that year’s Presidential election. We all know how that turned out.

The rule we should have learned is this. In politics, especially in a two-party system, don’t wish for your opponents to be led by an extremist. They might win. All too often, elections are a chance for voters to show discontent with the people in charge. The opposition can win by default. Even today, Trump is the narrow favourite to be re-elected in November, despite his attempt to overturn the 2020 result and his felony conviction. That is because many Americans want to vote against Joe Biden because he is too old and has failed to prevent inflation.

In Britain electors had a terrible choice in 2019 between Boris Johnson, a narcissistic liar, and Jeremy Corbyn, a naive idealist who would have been a “useful idiot” for Putin. (Imagine if he had been in charge when Ukraine was invaded.) That was a consequence of Brexit, a vote which saw the British people thumb its nose at their leaders.

This time round, the polls seem to indicate that Labour will win a landslide in the current election; on Betfair, the most favoured option is that the Tories will win just 50–99 seats out of 650! While there may be catharsis for Labour voters in such a result, the corollary may be that the Tories swerve even further to the right, or are overtaken by Nigel Farage’s Reform party. (Incidentally, Reform is a limited company, rather than a membership-run party, so Farage could just take leadership when he wanted. As someone quipped, he received 100% of his own vote.)

Inevitably, Labour will become unpopular when it becomes clear that they are too fiscally constrained to solve Britain’s problems. That means in 2028 or 2029, Farage, or a clone, would have a good chance of becoming prime minister.

Even before then, Marine Le Pen may have become French President. Macron’s party will fade away without his presence and the old parties of centre-left and right have decayed.

Some people may think that humiliation will serve mainstream politicians right for failing to listen to their electorates. But when you get an extremist into office, as we saw with Trump, it can be very hard to get them out again.

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Philip Coggan

Former Economist and FT columnist. Author of More, Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine