Boris Johnson has, as expected, shaken off questions about his character and fulfilled his life’s ambition to become the new Conservative Party leader and British Prime Minister, seeing off rival Jeremy Hunt by a two-to-one margin of 92,153 votes to 46,656. Here in the mother of all parliaments he became leader of the country with a vote of 0.13% of the UK population, a diverse electorate comprised of mostly old white right wing men living in southern England.
For the Tory right and the party’s traditional support base, Johnson’s election represents a mandate to deliver Brexit and simultaneously restore Conservative values of old. These constituencies will be heartened by the composition of the newly appointed Cabinet, which has been frontloaded with hardline Brexiteers, Thatcherites and outright reactionaries. This is the stuff of nightmares for women, ethnic minorities, the LGBT community, the poor, the infirm and working-class people as a whole. In addition, the appointment of Julian Smith, a long-time ally of the DUP, as Northern Ireland Secretary of State indicates that Johnson wishes to keep the Conservative’s partners happy at the continued expense of British government impartiality in the North’s fragile peace process.
The ‘Boris bounce’
As predicted, Johnson’s victory has produced an instant ‘Boris bounce’ of between 5-7 points, bringing the Tories up to 31% in one recent poll. While we ought to be cautious of polls, understanding that they are used as much to influence opinion as to reflect it, they do appear to suggest that Tory voters who had defected to the Brexit Party are already beginning to return to their party of origin in significant numbers.
On the face of it, Johnson looks set to achieve his immediate objective of marginalising the Brexit Party and consolidating Tory support at upwards of 30%. He has ‘absolutely’ ruled out calling a general election before the UK’s exit from the EU is secured, and the laws governing the timing of an early election mean that there is a very narrow window for doing so.
A snap election?
But there are circumstances in which it could still happen. One possibility is that Johnson was lying and will renege on this pledge and call a general election in search of the elusive working majority, particularly if the Tories continue to eat into Brexit Party support and creep up towards the high-30s in the polls. This option would become more attractive to Johnson should the EU refuse to accept a reformulation of the backstop and pressure grows on the new Prime Minister to follow through with his ‘do or die’ pledge to leave by 31 October.
The other possibility is that Parliament will trigger a vote of no confidence in the government in response to Johnson’s rhetoric and the growing prospect of a no-deal Brexit. Labour have so far rejected calls from the new Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson to table an official vote of no confidence, arguing that such a vote now ‘will only strengthen Boris Johnson’s hand and further his march towards no deal’. Corbyn’s party is likely to hold fire till the end of the summer, when opposition to Johnson has fomented and a vote of no confidence stands a better chance of success. The key factor in this parliamentary equation is the twenty or so Tory MPs who are vehemently opposed to a hard Brexit and have begun to rail against Johnson’s rhetoric. Corbyn needs to be confident of enlisting their support before moving to topple the government.
Reconciling the irreconcilable
Recognising that Johnson is at heart a cynical, lying opportunist, it would come as no surprise if he were to effect an about-turn and accept closer regulatory alignment with the Single Market, in an effort to placate his old friends in big business and the City of London. Equally, he may follow the example of Theresa May and appeal to the EU for an extension to find a parliamentary majority for a tweaked Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.
At this stage, however, we look to be on course of a no-deal Brexit. Johnson has convened a ‘war cabinet’ of ardent Brexiteers to prepare for this eventuality, started planning for the imposition of direct rule in Northern Ireland, and threatened to prorogue Parliament before 31 October so that the UK will automatically leave the EU without a deal in place. He is also looking to his counterpart across the Atlantic for a TTIP style trade deal to compensate for the loss of economic activity within the EU in the event of a no-deal.
Yet each of these strategies come with the same set of problems that plagued May during her term in office. Johnson’s victory has gone some way to re-energise the Tory base, but he inherits a party that remains bitterly divided along ideological, political and economic class lines. These divisions are destined to re-open as the government’s preferred strategy becomes clearer. According to Richard Seymour, Johnson’s dilemma can be summed up thus:
If he tries to deliver a “no deal” Brexit he will split his party and parliament will block him. If he tries to renege on Brexit, he will split his party. If he tries to string the Brexiteers along, and seek further delays, he will be incinerated in a fiery backlash.
Viewed in this light, it is doubtful whether Johnson is better positioned than his predecessor to repair the deeper divisions within Conservatism and the ruling class. Arguably his Irish policy and the threats issued from Irish America not to undermine the Good Friday Agreement and his frosty reception in Scotland both suggest that he is much more likely to hasten the break-up of the UK.
For the Labour left, Johnson’s personal attacks on Corbyn should leave no doubt that we are already on an election footing. The Labour leadership knows this and also seems to recognise the dangers of allowing the political battles ahead to be fought on the narrow ground of anti-Boris moralism. Speaking at a Labour rally in London’s Parliament Square, Corbyn announced a series of pledges that would be implemented by an incoming Labour government. They include: the retention of the winter fuel allowance; free bus passes and TV licenses for pensioners; free school meals for all primary school children and a reduction in class sizes; a £10-an-hour living wage; increased NHS spending; and the creation of 400,000 jobs as part of a ‘green industrial revolution’. These are among the wide range of policies contained within Labour’s manifesto which carry popular appeal and could form part of a radical, insurgent strategy to defeat the right and expose the vacuity of the liberal centre.
But what of Labour’s position on Brexit? One of Corbyn’s pledges is to campaign for Remain against no-deal or a ‘bad Tory deal’. Having long sought to unite voters around a deal that would work for communities, a position based on the party’s ‘six tests’, Labour is now on the path to becoming a party of Remain. The arguments in favour of this strategy centre on two trends: the consolidation of pro-Brexit forces behind Johnson and the possibility of a swift exit; and the fractured nature of the political forces representing Remain. In these conditions, Corbyn is facing sustained pressure to align with the Lib Dems, Greens and nationalist parties in an anti-Boris and anti-Brexit campaign.
Despite its obvious appeal for some, Corbyn’s team should be alive to the dangers associated with this course of action. For starters, any alliance with the pro-Remain establishment would necessarily be based on a dilution of Labour’s radical programme – the foundation stone of a successful general election campaign and any serious attempt to build a transformative movement in post-Brexit Britain. Secondly, it should be reiterated that there has been no major shift in popular opinion towards support for Remain, despite the improved fortunes of the Lib Dems in particular. To the contrary, a recent Opinium poll indicates that 52 percent of the population still favour leaving the EU, with 38 percent committed to a hard Brexit regardless of the consequences. Were Labour to adopt a hard Remain position in the event of a divisive referendum, it is conceivable that the party would face a backlash in its Leave voting traditional strongholds, including those marginal constituencies that it needs to win a general election. Finally, as noted above, there is every chance that the opportunity for a second referendum may not present itself until after the fact of the UK leaving on 31 October. It is questionable whether the Labour leadership would be wise to assume the task of negotiating Britain’s re-entry to the EU, with all of the problems that would raise.
There is no doubt that Labour is in an incredibly difficult position with no easy route out. But although they have had the worst possible run in – Brexit, a hostile media, attacks from the centre, open revolt among the Parliamentary Labour Party – Corbyn’s party is ahead in the poll of polls and his team would probably welcome an election sooner rather than later. There is arguably no better time than now to mobilise the party activist base and left trade unions around Labour’s radical agenda. Whether this can be coupled with an effective Brexit strategy depends on the timing of an election, the fate of the government in Europe and the weight given to the set of factors outlined above.
by Seán Byers & Stiofán Ó Nualláin
Originally published on 2 August 2019 at brexitblog-rosalux.eu as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.