After several unsuccessful attempts, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally succeeded last month in persuading the country’s parliament to agree to hold a general election on December 12. Like any election, the result is unknowable, so Johnson’s decision is something of a gamble. And many say he had no need to call an election at all. With the deal he negotiated to take Britain out of the European Union (EU) given initial approved by parliament, he could have used the three-month extension given by the EU to take the bill into law before the end of January. But Johnson instead chose to go to the electorate and ask them to choose which political party was most likely to meet his declared goal to “Get Brexit done!”
Two questions will be crucial in this election. Will Brexit be the key issue, as Johnson clearly hopes? And if so, will voters blame Johnson for breaking his promise to take Britain out of the EU Brexit by the end of October? Or will they blame opposition parties for doing everything to try and stop him?
Even supporters of Johnson fear that in opting for an election he may have fallen into the same trap as his predecessor Theresa May. She famously called an election two years ago, hoping to increase her majority in parliament and so make her path to Brexit less rocky. But the Labour Party, under its leftwing leader Jeremy Corbyn performed unexpectedly well in the campaign. The result was a disaster for May, who far from increasing her majority, lost it altogether and had to stumble on as head of a minority government, fatally weakened for the rest of her tenure. But the situation today is different from two years ago and such a result is unlikely to be repeated for a number of reasons.
Before the election in 2017, the Conservatives held a lead of nearly 20 per cent over the main opposition Labour Party. But as soon as the campaign started, Labour began to rapidly close the gap, with only about a five per cent gap between them on polling day. Today the Conservatives lead Labour by 12 percentage points and there is no sign that gap is narrowing.
Polls have to be treated with caution, since people can be reluctant to reveal how they will really vote if they fear their choice might be unpopular or deviate from the norm. This is thought to be the reason the true level of support for Brexit was underestimated in opinion polls ahead of the 2016 referendum. But with Johnson constantly attacked in the media as unreliable and dishonest and a friend and ally of that other bogey figure of liberal opinion, President Trump, such voter bias is more likely to result in a poll that if anything underestimates support for Johnson and the Conservatives.
Johnson is also a much more vigorous and combative debater and public speaker than was the shy and retiring Theresa May. Her dearth of charisma and evident lack of confidence when dealing with the general public was a key factor in the failure of her election campaign. Johnson is, by contrast, a combative and witty speaker and writer, with a talent for crafting pithy soundbites. Johnson will therefore perform far better than May in the all-important election campaign meetings, news conferences and televised debates with his main challenger, Jeremy Corbyn. While seeking to portray an avuncular though radical image in addressing meetings and giving speeches to a sympathetic crowd, Corbyn fights shy of direct debate and media interviews, on occasions losing his temper when challenged by journalists.
Corbyn also appeared undecisive going into the election campaign by showing a curious reluctant to have elections at all, despite having demanded one for months. Corbyn’s position was that Johnson secretly wanted to take Britain out of the EU without a deal. So, to prevent this Corbyn insisted on Johnson explicitly ruling out a no-deal Brexit first before he would agree to an election. But Johnson confounded his critics by returning from Brussels having persuaded the EU to negotiate a new withdrawal agreement. Having done so, it was hard for opposition parties to credibly argue that Johnson would ditch his hard-won deal and instead advocate leaving the EU without one.
If Brexit is the key issue for the election, then that plays into Johnson’s hands. For good or ill, the Conservatives are clearly a party of Brexit. This has damaged the Brexit Party itself, which seeks to take votes from the Conservatives and whose support is dropping. The centrist Liberal Democrats are the openly stop-Brexit party, hoping to attract pro-remain votes from Labour. But Labour has an unclear Brexit policy. The party says if it is elected it will negotiate a new deal with the EU and then put that to a referendum.
The problem with such a plan is that the EU would be under no pressure to negotiate a new deal if a referendum would open the way for Britain remaining in the EU –the preferred position for Brussels.
Even if Labour government did manage to negotiate a new Brexit deal, Corbyn says it would not campaign for it in the referendum. The party is clearly keen not to alienate either its pro-remain or pro-Brexit constituency. But in doing so it risks, with such an incoherent policy, losing the trust of all.
Corbyn, never happier than when addressing protest rallies of one kind or another, clearly relishes getting out on the campaign trail. “We’re going to be out on the streets for about six weeks. It’s going to be fun,” he said at the launch of the election campaign. Some think Corbyn does not expect to win, and that he knows many of his own MPs are willing to see the party go down to electoral defeat so they could then replace him with a more capable leader that can rid the party of the taint of antisemitism, which has damaged it deeply since the last election. Jews in Britain in all walks of life have expressed fear of a Labour government under Corbyn. And several Jewish MPs have left the party. This is a fatal flaw in a party seeking power in any liberal democracy.
Divided parties rarely win elections. And while there are deep differences on the Conservative side, the party is at least clearly committed to the Brexit path. Labour, by contrast appears confused and evasive on this key issue facing the country. The blame for Johnson’s failure to meet his Brexit deadline last month could therefore rebound on Labour and give Johnson the parliamentary majority he seeks.
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