The contest to replace Theresa May as Conservative Party leader and British Prime Minister has reached its final stage after Tory MPs selected Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt to go head-to-head in a series of hustings, where they will seek to win a majority of votes among the party’s 120,000 members.
The leadership process to date has been characterised by scandals, infighting and fragmentation, reflecting the political and ideological divisions which have plagued the Conservative Party for decades and have opened up as a result of Brexit.
The task of bridging these divisions will now fall to Johnson or Hunt, who will be expected to succeed where Theresa May fell short. This will involve meeting the challenge of the Brexit Party, which poses a significant threat to the Tories in up to fifty of their most marginal seats. A Johnson victory would boost the chances of electoral consolidation for the party whilst contributing somewhat to the polarisation of opinion along old left/right, two-party lines. However even this is unlikely to resolve the fundamental contradictions at the heart of the British political system.
Step forward Prime Minister Johnson?
Boris Johnson’s alleged domestic dispute with his partner means that the leadership contest may no longer be a coronation, particularly if Hunt questions his rival’s character during the upcoming election hustings. However it is doubtful whether this will be enough to close the 20+ point gap between the two. Johnson’s Teflon-like ability to shrug off successive scandals means that he is almost certain to assume leadership of his party and the country on 22 July.
A number of polls indicate that Tory supporters see him as the best placed candidate to win back voters who backed the Brexit Party during Theresa May’s tenure. Johnson has routinely changed his position on Brexit according to the prevailing winds but has now vowed to remove the backstop, withhold the £39 billion ‘divorce’ payment due to the EU and take Britain out on 31 October with or without a deal.
This rhetoric is designed to affect a Tory recovery in the polls at the expense of Nigel Farage’s party. In the short term, a Johnson victory would lead to the growth and consolidation of Tory support in the polls. As the Tories extend their lead over Brexit Party, greater numbers of defectors may be encouraged to return to their party of origin. This would raise the possibility of an early general election, particularly if – or when – Johnson is unable to secure the backing of parliament for his proposed Brexit plan.
An outright Tory victory in a general election however seems like a distant prospect, and Farage’s threat to field over 600 candidates in that event will ultimately necessitate some form of cooperation between the two. There is every possibility of the Tory Party under Johnson entering into a coalition arrangement with the Brexit Party. This sits within the trend across Europe whereby conservative parties are under increasing pressure to make deals with radical right parties, and where the two forces are showing signs of convergence along ideological and organisational lines.
An existential crisis
There is every reason to believe that any Tory recovery will be temporary and that we are living through the high point of an existential crisis for the party of the British ruling class. Electoral support for the Tories has plateaued in recent decades while their membership is declining, ageing and increasingly inactive. Attempts to emulate Labour’s model of organising and mobilisation have meanwhile been hugely unsuccessful. In addition, it is clear that the attitudes and interests of the Tory support base no longer align with those of the dominant fractions of capital. This divergence finds its most obvious expression around the question of Brexit: one poll suggests that the majority of Tory members remain committed to Brexit even at the cost of the party’s disintegration and breakup of the United Kingdom, while big business and the financial sector are unequivocally in favour of Remain.
These are the problems which dogged May’s premiership and will not be resolved simply through the election of a new leader. Johnson, like May, will have to contend with the Tory Remainers who have threatened to trigger a no-confidence vote if the government attempts to force through a hard Brexit. He will have to quickly identify viable ‘alternative arrangements’ to avoid a hard border in Ireland, which have so far eluded the government. And that is to say nothing of the Scottish question: a no-deal Brexit delivered by a Farage/Johnson coalition would undoubtedly swing a vote for Scottish independence, with demands for an Irish border poll to follow.
In short, a restoration of the status quo ante is not on the cards: one way or another we are entering into a new political dispensation.
What does this mean for Labour?
The one potential upshot of this is that the threat of a Johnson-led government or Tory/Brexit Party coalition will concentrate the minds of Labour supporters who have become inactive or recently switched to the centrist parties (Lib Dems, Greens) in protest at the party’s stance on Brexit. There are several marginal constituencies, including Boris’ home seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where the Labour candidate will represent the only realistic hope of defeating the Tories or Brexit Party. In such circumstances only the most vociferous opponents of Corbyn’s project are likely to stick to their guns in voting Lib Dem or Green.
Corbyn’s Labour is ahead in all major polls, including the all-important poll of polls, and will be looking forward to a general election. Following the unlikely victory of Lisa Forbes in the recent Peterborough by-election, Corbyn told the media to ‘Underestimate us as your peril’ and expressed confidence that a general election would ‘deliver a government for the many, not the few’. However, a number of potential dangers lie ahead. The first concerns the ground upon which any election might be fought. Pressure from the liberal media is sure to encourage the view in some quarters that Labour’s election strategy should centre on attacking Johnson’s character, rather than seeking to mobilise people around the alternative vision that was so crucial in 2017 and again in the Peterborough by-election. The former might yield short-term gains, but it is the latter that will provide a solid foundation for building the Labour movement into the future.
The other, related danger for Corbyn is that the centrist parties will be working hard to bill a general election as a battle between the forces of Leave and Remain, with a view to dragging Labour onto the terrain of a culture war. It remains highly likely that a good performance for Labour would still leave the party depending on one or a combination of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Lib Dems and Greens to form a ‘progressive’ government. This would, of course, come at a cost – the demand for a second referendum on EU membership, a second Scottish independence referendum or both.
Against this backdrop, there will be pressure on the Labour leadership to declare support for Remain in a second referendum, in an attempt to claw back enough votes from the pro-Remain parties to win a parliamentary majority. The unlikely election of Jeremy Hunt, the current Foreign Secretary and candidate of choice for a significant minority of Tory Remainers, would in all likelihood add to this pressure.
But there are a number of problems with this approach. To begin with, it would patently fail to win back working-class voters from the Brexit Party and drive greater numbers into the welcome arms of Farage, at the cost of losing up to 50 marginal seats concentrated mainly in the Labour heartlands upon which the party was built. The referendum campaign itself would be hugely divisive given the polarisation of people’s positions on Brexit, both within the labour movement and across society.
The other problem is that the party leadership appears to be pivoting towards this explicitly anti-Brexit position just when it has become all but impossible to hold such a vote before the UK is due to leave the EU. The terms of any future referendum would have to be very different, focusing on the question of Britain’s re-entry into the EU and the stringent conditions that would come with that.
In view of all of this, it is reasonable to argue that Labour’s prospects would not be best served by trying to stop Brexit at this stage. Rather the best course of action appears to be the one that is currently being pursued – one that focuses on maximising ‘the vote against crashing out and allies it to a popular domestic agenda’.
by Seán Byers & Stiofán Ó Nualláin
Originally published on 1 July 2019 at brexitblog-rosalux.eu as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.