The hard line over Brexit taken by Boris Johnson in his first speech in the House of Commons as prime minister suggests a strategy that will inevitably lead to an early general election.
His position is that Britain must leave the EU on October 31 “do or die”, and if the EU wants a deal it will have to drop the Irish backstop. This is a classic game of chicken, but outgoing European Commission president, Jean-Claude Junker, has already rejected the idea, saying the current deal is “the best and only agreement possible”.
The truth is that the new prime minister does not expect the EU to change its mind. Instead, he could engineer a snap general election to get a majority in the House of Commons to deliver a no-deal Brexit. It should be fairly easy to trigger an election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which requires such a motion – which can be tabled by any party – to be supported by two thirds of the House of Commons. Opposition parties would be forced to support such a move, much as they did in 2017 when Theresa May called a snap election.
But can Johnson win the subsequent election? The chart below shows the (smoothed) trends in voting intentions in the 122 polls conducted between November 2018 and July 27 2019, which includes the “Boris Bounce” – polls show the Tories have become more popular since Johnson was elected.
Perhaps most obviously, the chart highlights the dire consequences for the Conservative Party of missing the March 29 deadline for leaving the EU – support for it plummeted afterwards. Labour, however, suffered a similar fate because it refused to pick a side in the great schism that is Brexit, delivering in the process large numbers of votes to the Liberal Democrats in the European parliament elections.
These failures effectively crashed the two-party system, which by the time of the May 2019 European parliamentary elections had turned into a four-party system – with the Brexit Party sweeping in to fill the void left by the Conservatives.
So what would be Johnson’s strategy to win an early election? First, he will almost certainly blame the EU for the breakdown of Brexit negotiations and take a hard line over the issue in order to win back Brexit Party voters and any other pro-Leave voters from other parties.
He will try to dominate the media over this issue in the run-up to an election, and thereby suck the air out of any rival campaigning by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. If the strategy succeeds and takes the lion’s share of the Brexit Party vote, then the Conservatives could win a snap election with more than 40% of the vote.
The second part of Johnson’s strategy will be to neutralise the damage caused by ten years of austerity policies, particularly among working-class Labour voters in the North of England. To this end, expect more government promises of largesse for the NHS, for schools and other public services to follow on from the pledge already made to hire 20,000 new police officers.
Johnson vs Corbyn
One advantage for the Conservatives is that Jeremy Corbyn is currently very unpopular – and growing more so over time, as the chart below shows. This is going to make it difficult for the Labour leader to repeat his success in the 2017 general election, when his barnstorming campaign led to an impressive result for his party. It is also worth remembering that he was opposed by the hapless May in that election, rather than the wily Johnson.
A July 24 YouGov poll also shows that Johnson has a personal advantage over Corbyn, with 38% saying Johnson would make the best prime minister as opposed to only 20% who favour Corbyn. Similarly, our post-EU election survey showed that half liked Johnson more than Corbyn, and only 36% liked the Labour leader more than Johnson.
The obvious counter strategy for Labour is to come out strongly for Remain, winning back voters who deserted to the Liberal Democrats and hopefully capture some Conservative Remain voters as well. This could lose the party some working-class Brexit voters, and Labour will want these to be divided between the Brexit and Conservative parties, thereby splitting the anti-Labour vote.
Consequently, Labour should ignore the Brexit Party and Farage in its campaigning, and launch a ferocious preemptive strike on Tory austerity policies and Johnson himself. Johnson is inclined to play fast and loose with the truth, something which got him sacked from his job as a Times journalist when he made up a quote. This makes him vulnerable to the charge “Boris the Liar”.
A combined anti-austerity and pro-Remain campaign, which gets many of the half a million Labour party members, thousands of public sector workers and trade unionists, and strong Remain supporters onto the streets is needed, and it should start in September. Such a campaign should be accompanied by a massive social media push, which party members can spearhead.
No more ‘Project Fear’
Labour also needs to recognise that “Project Fear” – the pro-Remain strategy to highlight the dire economic consequences of leaving the EU – didn’t work. A positive narrative on EU membership is needed instead and the key to that is an appeal to young voters who have a very different take on this issue to older people.
Indeed, the 2017 Labour manifesto floated a number of ideas helpful to young people on infrastructure investment and education. These gained traction and helped the party to win overwhelming majorities of this important demographic in that election.
Corbyn is still much more popular among millennials than he is among older voters. In our recent survey, his average score on a 0 (strongly dislike) to 10 (strongly like) scale was 4.9 among those aged 18 to 29, and declined steadily to a dismal 1.9 among those aged 65 or older. This large difference shows that Labour would be wise to “weaponise” age by doing all it can to mobilise the youth vote.
The UK is deeply polarised and a snap election will be fought on Leave versus Remain, young versus old, and haves versus have-nots. Attempts to fudge these divisions will no longer work.
Expect an election before the end of the year – and a very hard-fought campaign.