Brexit endgame points to a Johnson triumph

25th Oct 2019
Brexit endgame points to  a Johnson triumph

Photo: Boris Johnson (Credit: Chatham House Flickr Commons)

Ibrahim Suavi

In the minds of many, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s first three months in Downing Street has been the perfect definition of a disaster. Johnson has lost every vote in Parliament bar the passing of a mere statutory instrument. His bungled attempt to prorogue Parliament was unanimously junked by the Supreme Court.

To worsen the degree of Parliamentary humiliation and constitutional disregard, the Prime Minister has withdrawn the whip from twenty-one of his MPs relinquishing any workable majority in the Commons. With these entirely self-inflicted political predicaments, one would expect that Johnson’s fortunes would remain bleak.

However, since his arrival in Number 10, Johnson has been involved in a broader, highly strategic battle and has kept his focus on a larger prize which he is almost certain to win. Johnson wants an election triumph and he has played his cards wonderfully.

The departure of Theresa May left any prospective successor three avenues to resolve Brexit. First, and most simply, Parliament would need to be convinced to have a change of heart and elect to pass the thrice defeated Withdrawal Agreement. Second, the Government choose to plunge the UK into the abyss with a no-deal departure. Or third, an extension, delay or abandonment of Brexit altogether could be sought to perpetuate a state of paralysis.

The events since Johnson’s arrival into Number 10 have been a continuum of contests to reduce these three options to two. The Government’s unlawful prorogation of Parliament was a bungled calculation to reduce the scope for opposition MPs retained to extend the Article 50 process. Likewise, a politically disparate coalition of liberal Conservatives and opposition parties, at the behest of Speaker John Bercow, wrestled control of the order paper to legislate to prevent no deal.

Indeed, the calculation of these battles in Number 10’s eyes was not solely to find a resolution to Brexit, rather an exercise to position the Conservative Party on a winnable and clear side of an electorally binary choice. Evidently, during a general election, Johnson would fight based on a re-negotiated deal or no deal, but crucially not both. That would leave an uncertain alternative for the main opposition to pursue. That would not be their primary course of action.

By offering a deal to the electorate that commanded the confidence of Eurosceptics and Europhiles, Johnson would be seen as a credible unifier. Indubitably, a leader with the ability to build a consensus within a divided party and re-focus attention on clear optimistic messages around crime, education and health. It would be an offering that appealed to most leave and remain voters. Leave voters would be comfortable with the settlement, and the slight majority of 2016 remain voters would see a way out of continued stalemate.

Alternatively, Johnson standing on a ‘no-deal’ platform would certainly deter soft remain swing voters in the Shires, where the primary beneficiaries would not be the Labour Party, but by all accounts, the Liberal Democrats. It goes without saying a no-deal platform would subsume the Brexit Party and its support.

In any case, whether Johnson heads into a general election offering a renegotiated deal he has unexpectedly agreed or no-deal insanity, the Labour Party’s prospects appear weak, Labour’s current Brexit position is complex and one that most election strategists would hate to communicate into a short, simplified statement for voters to understandIn seeking to appease both leave and remain voters by promising the possibility of leaving through a Corbyn negotiated deal or the chance of remaining through a Labour’s own renegotiated deal being rejected in a confirmatory referendum, Labour is telling a section of its voters that it will not honour their ultimate wish. Credibility, therefore, is being expended for seemingly strategic expediency in preventing seat losses, let alone any gains to the joy of the vote scavenging Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party.

Nevertheless, public opinion appears to have confidence in Johnson’s approach, despite the great difficulties that have plagued his premiership hitherto. The Prime Minister’s net preference against Corbyn is steadily rising and the Conservative Party’s standing in a series of recent polls also reflect the same pattern with Tory leads ranging from nine to seventeen points. One could also point to more alarming standalone numbers where Johnson leads among 18-24 year-olds and the Labour Party is third in London.

Of course, caution must be exercised in extrapolating polling figures in the context of an impending election as the events of 2017 would suggest. However, the drivers of Corbyn’s unexpected result, namely a drop in the turnout of 65+ and a sharp increase in support and expected turnout among 25 to 34-year-olds appear to be in reverse. The base of voters over 65s is larger and there are no indications that the fluidity of opinion among younger voters is gravitating in a favourable magnitude towards Corbyn and the Labour Party to compensate.

What is certain is that an election is coming, and the Brexit endgame points to a Johnson triumph.

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