Want to stop no deal and five more years of Boris? The only answer is a Tactical Pact

Josh Cowls
Sep 4, 2019 · 6 min read

The year is 2024, and in his final speech on the eve of the general election, standing next to his wife Carrie Symonds, Boris Johnson “channels the spirit of Churchill”, as the Sun puts it, asking voters for a second term so that he can “complete the Brexit miracle.”

It hadn’t, of course, been a miraculous five years. The “Halloween Brexit” led to desperate medicine rationing, riots across twelve major cities, and a shortage of, among other staples, both crude and olive oil (memorable because it had supplied the label for the new divide in British politics: the old Leaver “crudes” versus the old Remainer “olives”). And even after surviving those devastating first few weeks, the country had had to face up to other challanges, from a flare-up of violence in Northern Ireland which had, to date, cost 347 lives, to a trade “deal” with re-elected and emboldened Donald Trump which tore the heart out of British agriculture and manufacturing.

Critics had long predicted that there was no way Boris could win in 2024. But over the past twelve months, slowly but surely, reassuring signs had started to emerge. The pound was back up to parity with the dollar, a mark it had regained a year earlier against the euro. Wages had, it was claimed, increased for the first time since before Brexit — though nobody believed the Office for National Statistics anymore. And the country was of course still basking in England’s 2022 World Cup win (the fact that they had beaten Argentina in the semis and Germany in the final was another stroke of jingoistic fortune). After four years of nose-diving in the polls — and pummelling at the dispatch box by Leader of the Opposition Rebecca Long-Bailey — Boris and Baldrick (as Dominic “Cunning Plan” Cummings had come to be known) looked set to beat the odds once again.

If this sounds like a dystopian nightmare to you, please realise that it is a nightmare that is, after the events of last night, dangerously close to coming true. In ordinary times, governments who lose their governing majority aren’t usually hailed as likely winners of forthcoming general elections. But these are extraordinary times, and despite considerable setbacks (and sitbacks), Boris Johnson remains the most likely Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, and No Deal remains the most likely outcome of the Brexit process. That’s because the Labour Party front-bench seems hell-bent on careening off a cliff into a general election, which would be almost as reckless and irresponsible as No Deal itself — since even if No Deal is taken “off the table” prior to an election it could easily be put right back on it with the support of a healthy governing majority.

I am no great fan of Jeremy Corbyn, but I couldn’t disagree more with the view that in a choice between No Deal and Corbyn, No Deal is a preferable option. What is true however is that this is indeed the choice that will be presented to the Great British public in any election held in October 2019. And given that choice, I am not sure the result will go the way I and many others want it to. While Jeremy Corbyn has had four years in the limelight as opposition leader — four years of media bashing as (with varying degrees of accuracy) a Marxist, a Stalinist, and an anti-Semite — No Deal is, rather like Brexit itself was in 2016, a blank canvas onto which various visions can be projected. Sure, experts predict chaos, but the enthusiasm for experts has hardly returned since 2016. It is all too easy for proponents of No Deal to beseech their unpatriotic opponents to just “believe in Britain” and have faith that Blitz spirit will win the day.

Above and beyond soundbites and a supine media, however, the chief advantage Johnson has in the election is structural. Even now lacking a slew of his MPs, as of today Boris has 42 more MPs than does Jeremy Corbyn, and there is reason to think that this gap will widen, not narrow, in a general election. Now the indisputed champion of Brexit, Boris now offers a very simple choice to the sizeable number of voters who want us to just “get on with it”, messily if necessary. Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party will back this stance to the hilt, fielding a sum total of zero candidates as long as a Halloween Brexit is guaranteed.

For Remainers, the choice is far less clear. No single party offers the combination of a well-liked leader, a popular policy platform and a real shot at winning a parliamentary majority. And a lack of clarity is the cardinal sin in first past the post voting systems. I plugged in the results of a UK-wide opinion poll released yesterday into Electoral Calculus, a respected psephology site, and the results are not pretty. A 35% share for the Conservatives, 25% for Labour and 16% for the Lib Dems renders this result:

Prediction of a general election based on current voting intention.

Even with a loss of 8.5% of their votes, the Tories would sweep the Commons in a landslide, gaining 60 seats and having a lead of *almost 200* over Labour. In a painful historical irony, the Brexit alliance of 48% (Cons + Brexit + UKIP) would topple the Remain/Labour alliance of ~52% (Lab + LD + SNP + Plaid + Green), winding up with 378 seats versus 254.

This should make absolutely terrifying reading for anyone who opposes No Deal Brexit, cronyist Conservatism and right-populist politics. It is chiefly the result of a voting system that privileges consensus and loyalty over pluralism, much as the US Electoral College rewards Republican voters who “fall in line”.

And it demands an ambitious response. What is needed, in short, is a Tactical Pact: an unprecedented effort to ensure that the true majority in the country— a slim majority to remain in the EU, a larger majority to reject No Deal under all circumstances, and a commitment to sensible, progressive politics to undo the damage done by nine years of Tory-led rule — is reflected in the results.

What would this look like? A Tactical Pact would need three priorities: efficiency, fairness and transparency. First, it must be designed to ensure that No Deal is avoided, with a secondary goal to enable a People’s Vote, with an option to remain, on any future Brexit deal. Second, it must be designed for fairness, to ensure that vocal minority parties underrepresented in FPTP are able to succeed. And finally, it must ensure that voters who support the Pact understand the implications of their vote.

Consider first the need to balance efficiency and fairness. To be effective under FPTP, the only realistic way for a Tactical Pact to work would be to identify a single candidate to support in each seat that either has a Conservative MP or where Conservatives were in second place in 2017. But with rising support for the Lib Dems and particularly the Greens far outpacing the number of seats they would ordinarily hope to get — following the analysis above, 16% of the vote would net the Lib Dems scarcely 5% of parliamentary seats, and 7% of the vote would net the Greens only 0.15% of seats — this suggests that some horse-trading is required to ensure that, as far as possible, smaller parties are given a fair shot at an apportionment of seats that matches their nationwide support.

Likewise, voters would need transparency in order to understand the implications of voting for the chosen No-to-No-Deal candidate in their constituency. This means a series of pre-election agreements between parties about exactly what form a No-to-No-Deal government would take, and who would lead it. The simplest route may be a ‘confidence, supply and referendum’ option whereby a Labour-led government lasts for a set amount of time, with a series of fixed legislative priorities and timetable for a People’s Vote. It is difficult but not impossible to imagine that if this government is only set to govern for, say, nine months, the SNP would not make an immediate referendum on its own independence a condition of its support. This approach would have the advantage of blunting the sort of attacks — so successfully deployed by the Tories against Ed Miliband in 2015 — that Corbyn would be propped up by Scottish Nationalists hell-bent on a referendum.

Again, while a Tactical Pact seems like an unorthodox approach, the enormous risk posed by an emboldened Tory majority in support of a No Deal Brexit demands a novel approach. The toxic combination of the structural imbalance of First Past the Post and the moral vacuity of the present prime minister are not to be underestimated.

Josh Cowls

Writing about the ethics of data and AI; political…

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