UK Politics: Boris Johnson is already preparing for a General Election

Will Sadler
Jun 16, 2019 · 7 min read
Image by Chatham House. Used under Creative Commons Licence

In his review of Channel 4’s Tory leaders’ debate, Ali Catteral must have given the best summing up of the Conservative leadership contest so far.

“That the UK is bound for hell in a hand-assisted vehicle, there is little doubt. All that remains is to discover which of these escapees from Pandora’s box will taxi us there; a more wretched collection of dissemblers, idiots, narcissists and people who have mistakenly taken drugs is difficult to imagine under one studio roof, but here we are. An asbestos-clad Krishnan Guru-Murthy meets the contenders before an audience drawn from across this broken isle. God actually help us.”

As the upper echelons of the Tory party clamber over each other to woo the 0.2% of the U.K. population — the Conservative party membership — who will select one of them to be the next prime minister, the remaining 99.8% of us can be thankful of one thing.

Having no say whatsoever in who the next prime minister will be means that we can - at least - afford to completely ignore the tedious spectacle.

There have now been two delays to the U.K.’s departure from the European Union and Theresa May’s failure to get her ‘Brexit deal’ passed by parliament led to her eventual resignation. The frontrunner to replace her, Boris Johnson has said that the U.K. will leave the E.U. ‘deal’ or ‘no deal’ by 31st October: the current Article 50 deadline.

However, it is becoming increasingly doubtful that he would be able to do that. Several ‘moderate’ Tories, ranging from Dominic Grieve to Ken Clarke have said that — if Johnson pursued ‘no deal’ — they would bring the government down by backing a no-confidence vote. Meanwhile another Tory rebel, Philip Lee is rumoured to be in talks with the Liberal Democrats about crossing the aisle to join them on the opposition benches.

A change in prime minister isn’t going to change the arithmetic in the House of Commons. The government clings on with a current working majority of just five, so it could take as few as three Conservative MPs to enable a no confidence vote to succeed.

On Wednesday, whilst debating an unsuccessful attempt by Labour to change the agenda of the House of Commons to allow time for parliament to pass legislation to block ‘no deal’, Dominic Grieve said:

“If we get to a point where a prime minister is intent on doing this [taking the UK out of the EU without a deal] the only way of stopping that prime minister would be to bring down that prime minister’s government. And I simply have to say here and now that I will not hesitate to do that …”

Boris Johnson doesn’t want to be subjected to a no-confidence vote that he’s not certain to win. He doesn’t want to trigger a chaotic ‘no deal’ departure either — at least not before an election- because his slim parliamentary majority would make that no confidence vote more likely to succeed. He’d go down as the shortest serving prime minister in British history.

The options he will be contemplating — assuming he becomes prime minister — will be to secure a more commanding majority by calling a general election himself (for which he’d need a two thirds majority of the House of Commons, or go through the odd spectacle of calling a vote of no confidence in his own government), or to try doing a better job that Theresa May of ‘selling’ a Brexit deal.

Whilst Boris Johnson insists that threat of a ‘no deal’ would be a ‘vital tool of negotiation’ in forcing the E.U. to give the U.K. a new more favourable exit deal, his claims are slightly undermined by the fact that the E.U. have sent their key negotiators home.

Having said that, whilst falling far short of renegotiation, the EU are showing a willingness to make tweaks to the infamous ‘Northern Irish Backstop’ that could bring in phased removal of the backstop measures — not on the basis of a time limit as demanded by many in the government — but on the basis of concrete milestones reached. Even if the E.U. were prepared to do this, it is unlikely it’d be enough to sway enough parliamentarians to back the deal to allow it to pass.

And so, we end up back in general election territory. After the first Tory party leadership hustings, the Westminster rumour mill was awash with speculation that — if he becomes prime minister — Johnson might call one. ITV’s Paul Brand, reported Johnson promising to “get Brexit done, get ready for an election” and the Telegraph’s Anna Mikhailova quoted him as saying “I think it is very important that whoever is leader has a mandate both from MP’s and from the party and the country”.

The advantage for Johnson of calling a general election rather than having one forced upon him is that he gets to control the narrative. His message? ‘Parliament is thwarting the will of the people by not allowing me to leave the E.U. deal or no deal. It is up to you to elect a new parliament that will.’

With the one-issue pro ‘no deal’ Brexit Party coming first in the recent European Elections, and their ongoing strong performance in general election polls, Johnson will be keen to neutralise the threat it poses to Tory votes. If Johnson swings to ‘no deal’ Brexit, Nigel Farage — the founder of the Brexit Party will have once again achieved the same goal he did with UKIP in 2014: make his political movement redundant by forcing the Conservative Party to steal its clothes.

Meanwhile, the results of the local elections, European elections and current polling suggests that the Labour Party are dangerously losing relevance. There are reports that the party is preparing to shift towards an unequivocal pro-second referendum position. If they don’t they almost certainly will be forced to do so by their membership at their next party conference in September.

But, if there is an election in the autumn, I wonder if is already too late for Labour to secure a majority. Their equivocation on Brexit, and constant contradicting of one another, has made voters on both sides of the divide lose patience. The evidence suggests there has been a marked shift of support away from Labour towards the Greens and Liberal Democrats. Astonishingly, several polls are now showing Labour and the Lib Dems neck-and-neck.

In response, many may point to Labour’s appalling polling and local election results that preceded their surprisingly good electoral performance in 2017. But Brexit isn’t two years away like it was then. Brexit should have happened already, and Labour’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ on the issue — so effective in 2017— is no longer fit for purpose.

My worry is that Johnson is recognising that — for now at least — the political dichotomy has shifted in this country; away from the ‘left’-‘right’ and towards the ‘nationalist’-‘internationalist’ axis. He is preparing to make the Conservatives unashamedly a nationalist party of ‘hard Brexit’.

Unlike Labour’s eggshell-approach of trying to keep its electoral coalition of leavers and remainers together, Johnson doesn’t care about losing Tory ‘remain’ voters to the Liberal Democrats (the current Electoral Calculus poll of polls suggests the Tories would lose over 30 seats to the Lib Dems). He is banking on these losses being more than compensated by the pendulum of support swinging from the Brexit Party back to the Conservatives. Anyway, if Johnson does plant the Conservative Party’s flag firmly in the soil of ‘no deal’, he’ll need an election to shake off the current crop of troublesome Conservative MPs who will join with the opposition to prevent it.

In my view, it’s a calculation that could pay off. The same Electoral Calculus poll-of-polls shows that currently, the biggest danger to Jeremy Corbyn is the Brexit Party, with more than 40 Labour seats under threat. I believe that Johnson intends to supplant the Brexit Party in these seats — rebooting the unrealised dream of 2017 by making the Conservatives a viable threat in what are currently considered Labour heartlands.

So how can he be stopped?

In the run up to an autumn election, any switch of Labour policy may end up being more of a damage-limitation exercise than a strategy that secures them an overall majority. If they do shift to an unambiguous pro-referendum position, this should reduce the threat of the hard-Brexit vote by shifting some support from the Liberal Democrats and Greens back to Labour in theses seats, as voters carry out the all-to-familiar duty of voting tactically (over six million voters are believed to have done so in the 2017 general election).

This may not be enough to cause losses for Labour and perhaps in the end, the best chances of stopping a hard-Brexit Conservative Party from forming a government in the wake of the election might be through a ‘rainbow coalition’ of Labour, the Lib Dems, Greens — as well as quite possibly the Welsh and Scottish nationalists.

Would this new government revoke Article 50, cancel Brexit, and face the wrath of an even more polarised country? Could they pave the way to the people finally being given a choice on the biggest unanswered question of them all: the kind of Brexit they actually want? Would they be able to hold a referendum that gave the people a real choice between that form of Brexit versus remaining in the European Union, but with a ‘reform’ agenda?

Your guess is as good as mine, but one things for sure, not only will Brexit dominate the national conversation for months to come, a general election alone won’t solve the issue.

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Will Sadler

Written by

Have just rejoined the Labour Party after an 18-year gap; no expert, just a self-educated geek; write about Brexit, Labour & the politics of NE England

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