/Boris Johnson inches closer to a Brexit election gamble

Boris Johnson inches closer to a Brexit election gamble

An anti-Brexit protester with a composite Union and EU flag is seen on Parliament Square outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on September 4, 2019 | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

The British prime minister will do everything he can to push for an early ballot.

LONDON — British MPs may have refused to back an election at first time of asking — but for Boris Johnson all roads lead to the ballot box.

The prime minister who on Monday said he did not want an election is now out and proud and demanding one on October 15. Opposition parties want one too — but not quite yet.

Several more days of parliamentary game-playing lie ahead, but with his majority now shot to pieces by defections and his own sacking of 21 Conservative MPs who voted against him Tuesday, Johnson is out of options.

Whereas his predecessor Theresa May endured repeated humiliations in search of a compromise, Johnson’s combative attempt to force a resolution has so far left him with a bloody nose. After losing key votes which saw MPs launch a bid to change the law in order to force the prime minister to ask Brussels for a Brexit delay, Johnson risks being unable to deliver on his promise to quit the EU by the end of October without a high-stakes move.

Downing Street has calculated that an election on a Brexit “do or die” ticket will regain a House of Commons majority and enable the prime minister to take the U.K. out of the European Union on whatever terms he wants, including no deal if necessary. They are confident they will get their vote, even if the precise parliamentary route still looks tenuous.

“If parliament is unwilling to put Brexit through an election is the only way to do it … [but if he loses] we will find a way to deliver on what the British people want, which is to deliver Brexit by October 31,” a No. 10 spokesman said.

Johnson, who like David Cameron and Theresa May before him wants to settled the EU question once and for all, could still be remembered as the prime minister who — by gambling it all at the ballot box — lost Brexit.

It’s a high-risk strategy with no guarantees. Any election could result in a majority government determined to take the U.K. out of the EU on October 31 with or without a deal; it could produce a government determined to hold a second referendum, potentially keeping the U.K. in the EU after all. Or it could mean yet more deadlock.

What is certain is that the campaign would be defined from first to last by Brexit and the deep divisions it has opened up in British society. As one of its key actors, Nigel Farage, told emboldened supporters at a rally Wednesday night — far from the debates of Westminster — that the old British party system has become “old hat.”

“We are now Leavers or Remainers — they are the divisions in British politics,” he said.

Election sooner or later 

As expected, MPs on Wednesday rejected Johnson’s first attempt at calling an early election, which he is now openly backing after parliament initiated legislation that would force him to delay Brexit if he has not secured a deal by October 19.

A two-thirds majority is needed in the House of Commons for an early election and the opposition Labour Party will not give their backing until a legal change blocking a no-deal Brexit has gone through, leader Jeremy Corbyn said Wednesday.

Opposition MPs — who have done nothing to hide their contempt for Johnson during two dramatic first days of the new parliamentary term — do not trust him not to fix the date of the election for after the current Brexit date, thereby dragging the U.K. out of the EU with no deal, despite Johnson’s insistence he would go to the polls two weeks before Britain is scheduled to leave. “I have absolutely no faith in anything the current prime minister says,” the Labour MP Jess Phillips said in one of Wednesday’s most impassioned speeches in the House of Commons.

Corbyn’s team is clear he wants an election as soon as no-deal Brexit is taken off the table. Whether that happens this week depends on whether a government attempt to filibuster in the second chamber, the House of Lords, succeeds. Some in Labour are pushing for the party to hold out for longer, until after the Brexit extension mandating a delay until January 2020 has come into force. But one way or another Johnson indicated he would ask Corbyn again soon, calling on Labour to “reflect on what I think is the unsustainability of this position overnight and in the course of the next few days.”

Farage factor 

The key “wildcard” looming over any early election is Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, according to one Johnson-supporting former Cabinet minister.

Farage could yet prove Johnson’s best friend or his worst enemy.

At a rally in Doncaster, in the north of England, on Wednesday night — held as MPs were debating Johnson’s election motion — Farage said he believed an election was inching closer, and laid out what must be a tempting offer for the prime minister, predicting a “massive, massive majority” for a Conservative-Brexit Party pact — but only if Johnson were to commit to a no-deal Brexit as “the only way.”

He heaped praise on Johnson for “having the guts” to sack the 21 Conservative no-deal rebels, to rapturous applause from supporters.

“Politics is changing: An audience in Doncaster clapped Boris Johnson, it’s remarkable!” Farage observed of the crowd in resolutely Labour-voting Doncaster.

If, however, Johnson continues to pursue a deal with the EU — still his public position — Farage has pledged to stand candidates in “every single seat in the country” against him. While Farage — and many Tory MPs — think the Brexit Party could be as damaging to the Labour vote in Leave-voting areas as it is to the Tory vote, the outcome of the European election, where May’s Conservatives fell to fifth place, with Farage topping the poll, looms very large in Johnson’s thinking.

Swinson to the left of me, Farage to the right

But joining with Farage by going hard for no deal is not a fail-safe election strategy for the prime minister.

Doing so could drive potential Conservative voters worried about the impact of no deal into the hands of other parties.

The pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, who are eyeing some key marginal Conservative seats in the south-west of England and elsewhere, are especially bullish, after improved poll performances in May’s local elections and then a second-placed finish behind the Brexit Party in the European election the same month.

The arrival of new leader Jo Swinson has coincided with a membership surge of more than 35,000 since the local elections, and millions of pounds of new funding pledged to party coffers, a Lib Dem official said. The party has gained three MPs in as many months through defections from Labour and the Conservatives, and represents a serious threat to Johnson’s majority.

For pollster Joe Twyman, director of Deltapoll, the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems would be “two sides of the same coin” for Johnson in a battle defined by Brexit.

“The threat to Boris Johnson and the Conservatives is that if he goes too far in one direction or the other on Brexit it alienates voters on the other side … An election is such a gamble because there is no obvious way to please enough of the people enough of the time.”

Labour hopes for 2017 repeat

Labour, lagging well behind the Tories in the polls, also has reason to be nervous about an election. Nevertheless, party officials remain confident that, as in 2017, a campaign focused on policy priorities other than Brexit would enable them to win votes by highlighting years of Conservative austerity, a redistribution of wealth from top earners, and promises of higher funding for public services.

“Ultimately it will be a choice between Boris and [senior adviser Dominic] Cummings with their elitism and total disregard for public services, which stands against everything Leave voters expressed, or Labour Party with a strong detailed manifesto,” one Labour official said.

Johnson’s spending priorities — more money for police, schools, the NHS and social care — set out by Chancellor Sajid Javid in a spending round on Wednesday — is a very deliberate attempt to nix Labour’s case.

The Conservative vote is also extremely vulnerable in Scotland. YouGov polling this week predicted Johnson could lose 10 of the party’s 13 seats north of the border, with Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party set to gain from concern about no deal in a country that voted 62 to 38 to Remain in 2016.

“There are certain areas of the country that are Remain-leaning. London, Scotland, large metropolitan cities, university towns …  If the Conservatives don’t pick up enough of those seats it’s really difficult to see where the majority comes from,” Twyman said.

Crucially Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats all back a second referendum on Brexit. If an election is held in October, by the new year the U.K. could be gearing up for such a vote.

Or, if just a few key marginal seats go in a different direction, by then the U.K. could have left the EU, with or without a deal.

For Johnson and for the U.K., it is the ultimate roll of the dice.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.

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