Wednesday 30 October 2019

The coming election

Since my previous post, the ‘do or die’ deadline of 31 October has been abandoned without any doing or dying, or any national ‘explosion’, in prospect. The EU have granted an extension until the end of January. Any further progress with the Withdrawal Agreement Bill has been ruled out. And MPs have agreed that a General Election will be held on 12 December. These rather bland sentences gloss over the days of anguish, and acres of speculation and comment, that lie beneath them. But, however arrived at, we are now entering a new and potentially decisive phase of the Brexit saga.

As I’ve argued before, an election is currently the only realistic, and very possibly the last, chance of reversing Brexit, though doing so will, in Ian Dunt’s words, be “the most uphill, fraught, emotional, gruelling political battle many remainers will ever have faced”. It is certainly not the most rational route to do so – or, for that matter, to deliver Brexit. That would be a referendum, which unlike an election would focus solely on the question at hand: whether to proceed on the basis of Johnson’s deal or to abandon Brexit, and, unlike a ‘first past the post’ vote, would do so on the basis of a majority of the population.

But it has been clear for a while now that there is simply no majority in parliament for holding such a referendum. Perhaps there could, or should, have been at some point – for example via a Government of National Unity, or a Kyle-Wilson style amendment to a Meaningful Vote – but all attempts to do so have foundered. This means that ever since the Withdrawal Amendment Bill (WAB) passed its second reading the writing has been on the wall for remain. With perseverance, a perhaps amended version of that would have eventually passed into law and Brexit would be a done deal.

Some remainers have been shocked and angered by the LibDem and SNP decision to push for an election, but from a remain perspective this was unquestionably the right tactic. By contrast, Corbyn made a tactical error in having to be dragged, not kicking and screaming so much as umming and aahing, to support it. Handled differently, the election could have been presented as something forced on Johnson rather than, as has happened, achieved by him.

Johnson’s foolish gamble

That, however, will soon be forgotten and is a minor error compared with the much greater one that Johnson – or more likely Cummings - has made. For if the writing was on the wall for remain after the WAB passed second reading it was surely a colossal mistake for him not to push on, agree a revised timetable, get his deal passed and then hold an election having ‘delivered’ Brexit after which he could drop any amendments that had been made.

Perhaps future historians will uncover the reason. I suspect the truth is that it was another example of Cummings’ overweening but counter-productive machismo. The only explanation that has been put forward is that the alliance that got the second reading passed was deemed too fragile to stay the course. It would have been tight, but I doubt that’s true. With nifty footwork Brexit was there for the taking and Johnson dropped it (just as the ERG Spartans did when they refused to back May’s deal).

We’ll never know whether that is true now. And, of course, the verdict of historians will depend on the outcome of this election. If he wins outright, especially if substantially, then Johnson will be feted as a master strategist. History is, as they say, written by the victors. For the time being, as Professor Glen O’Hara of Oxford Brookes University argues, the tactic is a huge gamble. It is already the conventional wisdom that, despite the Conservatives lead in the opinion polls, the result is highly unpredictable.

How single-minded will remainers be?

One key determinant of the outcome will be the extent to which remainers will make remain their sole priority to the extent of voting tactically for whoever is the most conducive candidate in their constituency (this is also likely to make national opinion polls misleading). Even without a formal Remain Alliance, nowadays it is much easier for individuals to do this via various websites. But such committed remainers will have to be determined enough to cast their votes in ways they may find deeply repellent.

In particular, especially in England, some Labour remainers are going to have to vote LibDem despite their memory of the Coalition government’s Austerity policies. Some LibDem and Conservative remainers are going to have to vote Labour, despite its hopeless dithering and ambiguity about Brexit over these last three years, and despite what they may think of Corbyn and Labour in other respects.

For, to be clear, the only realistic route to remain is via a Labour government, cajoled and supported by other parties, holding another referendum which remain might then win (if we get to that point, the remain campaign is going to have to get its act together, and quickly). But this is only scenario one of the six main scenarios for the election result, as sketched by Joe Owen of the Institute for Government, and not by any means the most likely.

What will the Brexit Party do?

The other key determinant is what the Brexit Party do. At the time of writing that is not clear. Johnson’s Achilles Heel is that repeated, high-profile, central pledge to have left the EU come what may on 31 October. If Farage runs a full-on campaign against the Tories for having ‘betrayed Brexit’ then he is going to hurt the Tories, and hurt them badly, losing them seats without gaining many, if any, himself. That will be good for remain, so logic would suggest that Farage does not do so (but logic may play little part, especially given Farage’s egotistical character and the fanatical nature of his supporters).

By contrast, any kind of pact, either nationally or locally, between the Tories and the Brexit Party will therefore make Brexit more likely, and, as for remainers, this may well be the last chance for them to get what they want. Yet even if a pact is made, the Brexit Part’s denunciation of Johnson’s deal as not being ‘clean’ (i.e. no-deal) Brexit must already have had some impact. At all events, some Brexit Party voters just will not come over to the Tories under any circumstances.

In the years I have been writing this blog I’ve spent quite a bit of time lurking on pro-Brexit social media sites and there is a clear hard core who, if there is no Brexit Party candidate to vote for, will abstain (or, maybe, vote UKIP or some other fringe nationalist party) rather than vote Tory. That includes some who ‘lent their vote to Theresa May’ but swear they will never do so again. It is unclear that the number of such diehards is high enough to be really significant, but that number can only have been swelled by the shift in their outlook over the last three years to regarding any Brexit deal as a betrayal.

Johnson’s limitations

There is also the question of how Johnson himself will stand up to the scrutiny of a general election. I am not convinced that he is the campaigning maestro that he, and many Tories, believe him to be. For one thing, to the extent that he will trade on the ‘people versus the Establishment’ motif, polling suggests that he is not that widely regarded as being of the people rather than the Establishment. It’s true that he was an asset to Vote Leave, but that allowed him to campaign in a very loose style – waving Cornish pasties around, and so on. If he made a gaffe, it wasn’t fatal, not least as the campaign didn’t even expect to succeed.

Campaigning to be Prime Minister is a very different matter, including as it may unpredictable encounters with the public, probing interviews with tough inquisitors and, perhaps, a televised leadership debate. Plus, with Johnson, there’s the omnipresent possibility of some gargantuan personal scandal emerging. It is telling that during the Tory leadership campaign his minders were at pains to keep him in the background. There was a reason for that – they knew his capacity to implode. For very different reasons, he may prove no more effective on the stump than did Theresa May.

This Brexit election must finally focus on Brexit

Thinking back to that 2017 election, a danger for the present campaign is – paradoxical as it may seem – that Brexit may not figure as prominently as it should, given how important the result is for it. During the 2017 campaign I discussed how there was actually remarkably little discussion of the details of Brexit itself. That could happen again.

Both main parties will be very keen to push their other policy agendas – quite ludicrously, since Brexit will massively affect the capacity to deliver these. They will be aided in that by much of the media. As Peter Ungphakhorn argues in his recent blog post, the media are often more comfortable with the narrow politics of Brexit rather than its technical detail. Relatedly, Simon Wren-Lewis, on his blog, identifies the media predilection for scoops and insider-briefings at the expense of forensic analysis. An election campaign lends itself to the comfort zone of such reporting rather than, say, detailed scrutiny of what Johnson’s deal would actually mean if it came to pass, as well the many things it will leave unresolved.

If so, that will be deeply unfortunate to the point of being unforgiveable. The coming election could well cement the historic strategic decision which, ultimately, Brexit entails. It would be shameful if, now that there is the concrete version of Brexit that did not exist in either 2016 or 2017, this decision were not exposed to full and detailed examination. We are, finally, at the point we should have been before the whole process started: with a definition of what Brexit means in practice, to be compared with remaining in the EU. It is absolutely incumbent upon every journalist, every politician, every commentator - and even the lowly Brexit Blogger - to focus on that question.

Of course, whether or not that occurs, it is very possible that a similarly hung and hamstrung parliament to that which we have now is returned. On Tuesday, in a reprise of his advice when the last extension was made, Donald Tusk – who, by the way, had been a far better friend to our country through all this than we have deserved - enjoined Britain to “make best use of this time”. Yet it is perfectly conceivable that, just as happened before, we are no further forward. An indecisive election, followed by the Christmas Recess, would leave us with just two or three weeks of the extension period left, and a no-deal Brexit looming yet again.

In short, all outcomes are possible. Which means that the stakes are very high, more so than in any election in my lifetime, certainly. It is going to be horrible, and some will find it unbearable. But it matters: it’s no exaggeration to say that the future of our country - our prosperity, our geo-political standing, perhaps even our survival as a unified country - is at issue.

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