The Last UK General Election Ever? Or the Last Bar One?
Sunday National, October 27th 2019
Boris Johnson on Monday makes what is his third attempt to get the votes to call a UK general election – needing 434 votes to win a two-thirds majority under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.
This piece was written before the moves by the Lib Dems and SNP to bring about an election on December 9th via a simple, single line bill. This may have more chance of succeeding later this week. But whether it does or does not it doesn’t invalidate the arguments below about an election in the last months of 2019 versus early 2020.
Today we are 1,222 days after the 2016 Brexit vote. It has been a long, gruesome ordeal – longer than the totemic, heroic and bloody 872 day siege of Leningrad. But unlike that moment in history there is no end in sight to Brexit any day soon. Even if the Boris Johnson Brexit Bill or another deal made it through the Commons there are years more of deliberations, possibly lasting over a decade, still to endure.
Boris Johnson governs, if that is the right word, without a parliamentary majority. But he created this situation – despite his many complaints about it. He started with a notional majority of three; it is now minus 45. He leads an administration which took away the whip from 21 Tory MPs. Despite this in the past week, his government saw its Brexit Bill get a second reading with a majority of 30 and its forgotten Queen’s Speech with a majority of 16.
Boris Johnson cannot be confident that these parliamentary votes will translate into continual victories as the Brexit Bill passes through its stages. Tories fear it could be amended to include customs union membership and an attempt made to hold a second referendum. Hence the election gambit.
Johnson’s election ploy is a twin-track. He and his advisers want an election and have played every move, huff and threat since he entered Downing Street with an election in mind.
An election now suits them. The Tories have a consistent lead. There is a temporary Tory unity with every MP voting for the Brexit Bill last week – which is far removed from the situation under Theresa May. And they judge that they need to get a majority as soon as possible to insulate themselves against future Tory rebellions on Brexit – the rationale by which May went to the polls in 2017.
They want an election which pitches Johnson v. Corbyn and does so while the Remain vote is divided between Labour and Lib Dems in England and Wales – aided by Labour’s Brexit prevarications and Corbyn’s ambiguities.
What is Labour’s position on Brexit? It is simple say some in the party – renegotiate, agree a new deal, legislate for a referendum, and then tell people whether Labour is for Remain or Leave in that vote. Good luck explaining that on the doorsteps particularly in winter.
Johnson may not get his December election. Whether he does or does not he can still use their election themes to frame the debate. They believe they have clear messages – ‘Boris is delivering’, ‘Lib Dems and Labour have voted for even more delay’ and more of the like.
Tories think that this politically plays just as well in an election early next year, but such a contest carries many more risks for them – hence the haste and impatience now.
For one the much-vaunted Tory lead is soft. A ComRes poll last week gave the Tories a 5% lead if they left the EU with a deal but if, as is near certain, Brexit doesn’t happen on October 31st they put Labour one percent ahead of the Tories.
Secondly, Tory unity is not as deep as they would hope. The ultra-Brexiteers have only parked their obsessional dogma and pursuit of a no compromise Brexit for a period. They are playing a longer game.
Third, the Tory ceasefire in their civil war will be under pressure at the very minimum with another EU extension agreed with a date, particularly if it dares to go past January 31st which does seem unlikely. It is only a temporary ceasefire.
Fourth, the longer the Tories have with the Brexit Bill the more its compromises, shortcomings and costs to the economy and society come to the fore. There has been a logic to Tory haste and its denial may come back and cost them dear.
Perhaps most importantly an election next year makes it more likely that the Brexit Bill passes into law, the UK leaves the EU, and the campaign becomes about more things than Brexit.
The Tory record over ten years in government – five in coalition, five by themselves with and without DUP support – would face scrutiny. Stagnant living standards, increasing poverty and hardship, and underfunded public services, along with the hit to these and public finances from Johnson’s Brexit, will surely be topics of debate.
Labour believe that in this environment they have a positive tale to tell that, as in 2017, could be popular – ending austerity, taxing the super-rich, and public ownership of rail and utilities. Whether it would end up like that is another story, but it is what Corbyn supporters believe.
British politics did not reach this impasse just because of Brexit. There is a long tail to this of an increasingly fractured, divided, unequal society – one where capital has taken more and more of the country’s GDP than labour over recent decades.
Adding to this has been the conspicuous failure of politics and government to tackle this situation – from Thatcherism’s evangelical embrace to New Labour’s Faustian pact with finance capitalism.
Compounding all this has been the increasing problem of how politics is done with an insider class of advisers, spin doctors and briefers attempting to manipulate the political process, media and public opinion.
This has been a toxic issue with ‘Downing Street sources’ cited anonymously as a cover for Dominic Cummings and his numerous over-the-top interventions trying to game the process and throw the opposition. This has become so pronounced that last week respected journalist Peter Oborne complained about it – citing the role of the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and ITV’s Robert Peston as uncritically reprinting his words and doing his work for him.
More seriously, Brexit has become another symptom of the degeneration of British government, how it does its affairs of state, and presents them in public. There is a discernable pattern in this – one identified by Helen Lewis in ‘The Atlantic’ – and a similarity in how Brexit is progressed and the Blair case for the Iraq war.
She wrote: ‘That war was mounted in a needless hurry … Then, as now, the role of a “patriot” was to accept the government’s line; anyone who questioned it risked being branded a “traitor.”’ And rightly she called out large acres of Britain’s media on this and the culture of dumbed down political coverage – not just in the tabloids, but BBC, ITV and SKY News.
But we need to remember three years after the Brexit vote, that England and Wales voted Leave, while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain. If the latter two rightly should be respected, then there is an argument that England and Wales should have their vote honoured.
Imagine for a moment a world in which Scotland voted 52:48 for independence and that it was followed by three years of dither and procrastination. Imagine there was no deal and then a high profile campaign along the lines of the ‘People’s Vote’ started calling for a second vote. Rightly many people would be saying that the UK was not respecting ‘the will of the people’, that the UK was no longer a democracy and worse.
The point is not that Brexit is a positive or to ignore the deceits and deceptions of the Leave campaign, as well as their deliberate strategic ambiguity as to what Leave meant in 2016 to maximise votes. It is that votes change realities, and the UK voted to leave – led by English and Welsh voters.
Scotland could play an important role in the next election. The thirteen Scottish Tory MPs were the difference in 2017 between Theresa May remaining in office and losing her grip on power.
Tory losses in Scotland combined with SNP gains could contribute to the difference between a Tory Government and non-Tory administration, depending on how the Labour vote holds up in or not in England, the extent of any Lib Dem surge, and how far the Brexit Party eats into Tory votes.
Scotland seldom acts as the critical factor in the Tories winning or losing – but in two contests it has been what has pushed Labour into office, in 1964 and February 1974.
The next UK election could be the last UK election. Or the second last – as there is a high prospect the next contest could produce a hung Parliament and another election in quick succession.
In another sense, we stopped having UK elections a while ago because we no longer have something that is British-wide politics. Instead, we have Scottish, Welsh, English and Northern Irish politics. Brexit is a product of this and it is time that English politicians – including critically those from Labour and the Lib Dems – started recognising it.