Boris Johnson could be about to lose everything – or redefine British politics

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

Boris Johnson has already decided on his election message: vote for me and get Brexit, vote for anyone else and get Jeremy Corbyn. He will ask voters: who can you imagine negotiating best with Brussels? Me, or Corbyn?

Clear as the message may be, the Prime Minister is risking everything in this contest. He could lose it all: Brexit, his premiership, the party, the works. He could go down in history as the shortest-lived occupant of No. 10. Or he could win, take this country out of the EU, then realign and reshape British politics. As one of those intimately involved in the decision to go for an election puts it: ‘It is a massive gamble. Nobody knows how it will pan out.’ One secretary of state admits that the outcome of the election is ‘totally unknowable. It doesn’t just depend on our performance but on what happens on the left. If they coalesce behind either Labour or the Liberals, we’re stuffed.’

This desire to roll the dice shows that Boris wants to be in power, not just in office. He went for an election after realising that there was no way to block the rebel bill to delay Brexit: if that were passed, he thinks, it would turn him into a puppet PM on 19 October. At cabinet on Monday, the new Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, told ministers that he had looked at every route to stop the rebels, every trick in the parliamentary book, and hadn’t found anything that would work. He joked that the idea of impeaching the Speaker was a bit arcane even for him.

It appears that the rebels will succeed in passing their law instructing the government to extend EU membership if a deal has not been agreed before the Prime Minister can call an election. Jeremy Corbyn claims that he wants this as a supposed insurance policy, a safeguard against no deal. But there is a political motive, too.

Elections turn on trust. A few days ago, Johnson stood outside Downing Street and promised that he would not request an extension to EU membership under any circumstances. I’m told he would rather resign and tell the Queen to send for Corbyn than do this. The Tory manifesto will set out how he will ensure that the UK leaves on 31 October come what may. The opposition, though, hopes that the Prime Minister’s failure to stop this delaying legislation getting onto the statute book will expose his weakness and damage his credibility with Brexit voters.

The opposition parties will be united on this point: they must do everything they can to damage his credibility in the eyes of Brexiters. Johnson was elected leader of the Tory party to stop it haemorrhaging votes to Nigel Farage. Tory MPs wouldn’t have turned to him if it had not been for the fracturing of the Tories’ electoral coalition which Theresa May’s Brexit extensions had caused; coming fifth in the European elections with less than 10 per cent of the vote was seen by many Tory MPs as a visit from the ghost of general elections future. If Johnson can bring the Leave vote back together, then the Tories could win — especially as the Remain vote is split between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Nationalists.

Since becoming leader, Johnson has repaired some of the May-era damage: the Tory vote is up eight points since he entered No. 10. However, if he was forced to ask for an extension, even under parliamentary duress, having promised not to, it would undo this work — and some. It would kibosh his whole electoral strategy of putting back together a pro-Brexit co-alition. Little wonder Johnson privately declares that ‘extension means extinction’.

An election is the cleanest answer to the current impasse. If the Commons doesn’t trust the government on the biggest issue of the day, the correct response is an election, not the legislature trying to take over the functions of the executive. When Jeremy Corbyn, the Lib Dems and the Tory rebels insist that an election should take place only after extension legislation has been passed, they reveal that they are far more interested in getting their way than constitutional propriety.

So will Boris Johnson’s great gamble pay off? What worries some cabinet ministers is that it is all too easy to rattle off where the Tories might lose seats: in Scotland, south- west London and the commuter belt. Those who are keen on an election counter that the battlefield is very big and the Tories can more than make up for these losses by picking up Labour seats in the Midlands, the north-east and Wales.

To some Tories, though, this sounds alarmingly like what Theresa May attempted in the 2017 election. Even those cabinet ministers who are more bullish about an election admit the similarities. One tells me that: ‘The 2019 election is an updated, cleaner version of 2017 — Boris is going to refight the election May fought. It is the same argument: these people are obstructionist, I need a mandate, strengthen my hand.’

But then again, May was not a natural on the stump. She had never fronted a national campaign and was most comfortable canvassing door-to-door, rather than indulging in the big set pieces that a national effort requires. By contrast, Johnson is at his happiest on the campaign trail. He pulled off the seemingly impossible in the 2016 Vote Leave effort and knows what it takes. His team are also natural campaigners, far more comfortable fighting an election than sitting behind desks in Downing Street. They will not repeat May’s 2017 errors.

May’s biggest mistake was a hubristic manifesto that attempted to win a mandate for various ‘eat your greens’ reforms. The Boris manifesto will be very different, reflecting concerns of the voters the Tories are targeting. More resources for the NHS, higher levels of per-pupil funding in schools and a promise of a clampdown on violent crime. The social care policy will be limited to a commitment to ensure that people don’t have to sell their houses to pay for their care. What’s more, Corbyn wasn’t taken seriously last time: a vote for Labour could be written off as a protest vote. Not now, with Labour in striking distance of power.

Nor will Corbyn be able to face both ways on Brexit. The last Labour manifesto committed to honouring the referendum result, yet the party still garnered a majority of the Remain vote, with the Liberal Democrats claiming a mere 13 per cent of it. That will be very different this time around. The Lib Dems will do significantly better than that, perhaps more than doubling their vote share, as they are rewarded for the lack of ambiguity in their Brexit stance. This might hurt the Tories, especially in the west of England, but if the Tories can make themselves the party of Brexit, that should deliver a slew of Tory gains. One cabinet minister predicts that: ‘There will be a lot of three-way stuff which will surprise people.’

The Brexit party is the nut to crack. Ukip won less than 2 per cent of the vote last time, but the Brexit party is polling in double digits. So far, Farage has said he will stand down only if the Tories give up any hope of a deal with the EU and go for no deal. They won’t. The PM remains surprisingly optimistic about the possibilities of getting a deal; he hinted to cabinet on Monday that things were going better with the Irish. He borrowed Ian Paisley’s line about his cows being Irish even if his constituents were British.

But then again, one has to ask: what more could a Brexit party voter really ask of Boris Johnson? How can those who really want Brexit think they’re more likely to get it by voting for anyone else, especially given the events of the past few days? Even Farage was forced to salute the Prime Minister’s ‘real leadership’ when the whip was withdrawn from Tory rebels. So will his voters, too, be drawn to the Tories? This is perhaps the biggest gamble of all that the Tories are taking in going for an election.

If the Tories did garner a majority, they would be sure of delivering Brexit and would have five years to shape the post-Brexit landscape. Defeat, though, would devastate them. They would have become a Leave party and then failed to deliver on that. Voters would forever doubt their competence. The public would ask: what is the point of a Leave party that couldn’t get the country out of the EU? Seeing a Corbyn government unravel much of the Thatcher settlement would make this a double defeat — and render their nine years in government this century a net loss for them.

Even Labour optimists think they’re unlikely to win a majority in this election, so they would almost certainly need to do a deal with at least one other party to get into power. It is no coincidence that John McDonnell has already opened the door to Labour accepting a second Scottish independence referendum, paving the way to an SNP alliance: this ought to focus the minds of unionists in Scotland. If Labour needed support from more than one party, then it might well have to offer electoral reform too. A change in the voting system and votes for 16-year-olds (another Labour policy) would make it much harder for the Tories ever to govern again.

Yes, this election is a gamble. But it is better to take a gamble than the route to certain defeat; that same route that May spent three years plodding along, kicking the can down the road as she went. This contest at least gives Boris and Brexit a chance.

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