Boris Johnson has finally got the general election he’s craved ever since becoming prime minister in the summer. MPs voted on Tuesday for Britain to go back to the polls for the third time in under five years on 12 December. The Prime Minister sees the election as the chance to ‘get Brexit done’. But should Brexit dominate the campaign, or should other issues determine who next governs the country?
Mr Johnson claims Britain needs an election because the current parliament has thwarted the government’s attempts to carry out the instruction of the British people and take Britain out of the European Union. Everyone is heartily sick of the Brexit saga dragging on unresolved for so long and only a new parliament with a new mandate can break the impasse, he argues. So for him, Brexit must be the overwhelming issue in a campaign in which he will claim that only his Conservative Party is unequivocally committed to delivering on the referendum result.
That will be the Prime Minister’s pitch over the next six, long weeks until polling day. But it is already being challenged not just by his political opponents in other parties but by some in his own. They say that his account of how the current parliament has blocked Brexit is highly contentious. And, many of them argue, elections can never be about a single issue and that there are other problems that may, and perhaps should, come to dominate the campaign.
Those who challenge his claim that a new parliament is needed to ‘get Brexit done’ make two points. If anyone in the current parliament was responsible for dragging the Brexit process out and preventing a resolution of the issue it was he and his diehard Brexit friends in the European Research Group of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. It was they who persistently withheld support for Theresa May’s Brexit deal and caused the deadlock. But if that’s all history, they make a more pertinent objection. It’s that Mr Johnson succeeded where she failed. He not only negotiated a withdrawal deal with the EU but he got it through the current House of Commons with a majority of thirty. So, they argue, far from needing an election to ‘get Brexit done’, the Prime Minister should carry through the process of turning that deal into law, get Brexit done, and then go to the country. Calling an election now is simple opportunism.
Mr Johnson would no doubt say that he feared getting bogged down in the detailed debate on his withdrawal bill and suffering defeats that might have changed its shape. Better to take the risk of an election which might deliver him a workable majority to implement the bill without alteration.
But it’s clear he sees electoral advantage in calling an election on his Brexit deal before it is turned into law and he’s determined to exploit it. He may have failed to honour his promise to achieve Brexit by the end of this month and so open himself to the scorn of the Brexit Party which always claimed he would flunk it. But he calculates that his deal is more than a match for the ‘No-deal-Brexit’ policy of the Brexit Party. And although he knows he will lose Tory-Remainer votes (and so also probably seats) to the uncompromisingly pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, Greens, Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, it’s Labour seats he’s got his eyes on to win the majority he needs to govern for the next five years.
Mr Johnson believes he can win Labour seats not only because of the widespread unpopularity of Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, but also because of the party’s policy on Brexit. He thinks he can expose it as muddled and unpredictable. That’s not how Labour sees it, of course. They think it is the only sensible policy. It’s for a new Labour government to negotiate its own withdrawal deal with the EU and then put that deal to the public in a referendum along with the option to remain. The trouble is that the party can’t say yet whether it would recommend its new deal or ‘remain’ in that referendum and that allows Mr Johnson to claim that Labour is offering the public a pig in a poke over Brexit. In particular he plans to tell Labour-inclined Leave voters in the Midlands and the north that Labour is really a Remain party since it is keeping open the chance for the 2016 referendum result to be reversed in another referendum.
That’s why Mr Johnson will want to keep Brexit at the forefront of his election campaign. But there are dangers for him in doing so. In the first place he has had to take a hard line with many prominent pro-EU figures in his party. Of the twenty-one who lost the Tory whip when they rebelled to prevent a no-deal exit on 31 October, only ten have had the whip restored. Very senior Conservatives such as former chancellors, Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond, and the former Lord Chancellor, David Gauke, remain out in the cold. They have not been slow to point out that the danger of a no-deal Brexit has not been removed and may well return at the end of next year if a re-elected Conservative government fails to secure a long-term trade deal with the EU by the end of the transition period.
Mr Hammond has gone even further. He claims that Mr Johnson is destroying the Conservative Party as a broad church able to contain ‘moderates’ such as himself. He said on Tuesday: ‘I fear that the real narrative here is that the Vote Leave activists, the cohort that has seized control in Downing Street, and to some extent in the headquarters of the Conservative Party, want this general election to change the shape of the Conservative Party in parliament: to get rid of a cohort of MPs that it regards as not robust enough on this issue and to replace them with hardliners.’ Such a warning may resonate with Tory-inclined Remain voters who may shift their allegiance to the Liberal Democrats or other pro-Remain parties.
But the other danger for Mr Johnson in making Brexit the centrepiece of the election campaign is that the public is weary of the issue and thinks other things are much more important. ‘Europe’ has rarely been at the top of voters’ list of priorities. And the Labour Party is certainly determined not to let it dominate the campaign. At the final Prime Minister’s Questions of this parliament on Wednesday, Mr Corbyn made clear he was going to campaign against the government’s record on ‘austerity’ and on the NHS: the election, he said, was a ‘once in a generation’ chance to ‘save’ the NHS.
Of course Mr Johnson is not so foolish as to believe that he can campaign solely on Brexit. He says he wants to talk too about schools, crime and, indeed, the NHS: his many visits to hospitals since he became prime minister indicate how much importance he attaches to it. The question is whether he can keep Brexit in the forefront of voters’ minds over the six week campaign or whether other issues will overwhelm it.
He told his MPs on Tuesday evening that they could not take the election for granted and that calling it involved a big gamble. The risks are not confined to the vagaries of December as a month for campaigning and getting the vote out. The last time a Conservative leader tried it – Stanley Baldwin in 1923 – it all went terribly wrong and Labour won its first chance at governing. The bigger risk for him is that the election will turn into an argument about something other than what he wants it to be about.
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