Matthew Goodwin

Matthew Goodwin is professor of politics at the University of Kent and Senior Fellow at Chatham House. He is the co-author of National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (Penguin)

September 30, 2019

Boris Johnson knows what he needs to win a majority. He knows he needs to win over a big chunk of the Brexit Party vote. He knows that if he wins those voters over, then the Conservative Party securing a comfortable majority in the next election is no longer possible but certain.

That’s why he is anchoring his looming campaign in the claim that while opposition parties want to “surrender” to the EU, only the Conservative Party will “get Brexit done”.

It is also why he is promising vast sums of investment for infrastructure and the NHS. There will, he claims, be a revival of the northern powerhouse, he will speak for the regions, and he also has plans for an Australian-based immigration points system. For the most part, it has all been lifted from the Farage playbook. To further incentivise these voters to switch sides, Johnson has also ruled out an electoral pact with Farage.

The success — or failure — of his gambit will determine the outcome of the next election. If Johnson scoops up just half of the Brexit Party vote, then he will close in on 40% of the national vote. If Labour and the Lib Democrats remain divided, then this could plausibly hand the Conservatives a huge majority of over 150.

There are certainly signs that the strategy is working.

Over the past week, as Conservatives prepared for conference in Manchester, they averaged 32% of the vote and held a healthy 8-point lead over Labour. Were a general election held tomorrow, they would most likely win a small majority — albeit on what would be their lowest vote share since William Hague led them to their second defeat against Tony Blair, in 2001.

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To only look at poll averages, though, is to miss considerable variation. In recent days, we have also seen a 12-point and an 11-point Conservative lead, recorded by Opinium and YouGov respectively. Meanwhile, of the past 40 polls Labour has not led in a single one. The last time Jeremy Corbyn’s party held a lead outside the margin of error was back in July.

Other things are pointing in the same direction. The latest polling from Lord Ashcroft asked voters to choose between a Conservative government led by Johnson, or a Labour government under Corbyn. Voters broke 56% to 44% for Johnson.

Crucially, however, so too did Labour Leavers (by 52% to 48%) and Brexit Party voters (96% to 4%), all of which will boost hopes in No 10 that when it comes to the crunch they will capture the large number of pro-Brexit Labour seats that they will need to offset any losses to Labour and the Liberal Democrats in pro-Remain territory.

So, as I pointed out, while many observers have mocked and derided Johnson and his senior advisor Dominic Cummings, their more populist strategy does seem to be paying dividends. The Conservatives today are in a stronger position than when Johnson first arrived in Downing Street in late July.

But, having said all this, there are also good reasons to ask whether the Conservatives will be able to squeeze the Brexit Party vote as much as they need to. Many on the centre-Right seem fairly convinced that this is an inevitability. But there are three things that could, at least in my view, quite easily derail the broader strategy.

The first is a sharp and very real disconnect between what Boris Johnson is offering on Brexit and what most Brexit Party voters want.

As I see it, the most plausible route ahead is that the Prime Minister will fail to get a revised Brexit deal through a hostile House of Commons. This, in turn, will trigger a third Brexit extension and, through one mechanism or another, a fresh general election.

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Johnson will then go to the country, asking voters for the majority that he needs in order to ‘get Brexit done’, which presumably will mean trying to negotiate a fresh deal while leaving no-deal on the table.

This will be a familiar story for voters. But it is one that an overwhelming majority of Brexit Party supporters, and a good chunk of Conservatives, do not want to hear. Consistently, Brexit Party voters tell us that they want a ‘no deal’ Brexit and would be prepared to see this outcome. Most would even happily sacrifice the Union for it.

But Johnson will be unable to campaign openly for a no-deal. It would be too polarising. He would instead have to go the country with something like ‘a deal through no deal’, promising to at least keep the option of no-deal on the table. His basic problem is that every time he mentions a deal, he will alienate the large majority of Brexit Party voters who do not want one — but whom he needs for a majority. Farage, meanwhile, will simply throw bomb after bomb, branding Johnson a sell-out.

This is why Farage spent much of this week trying to squeeze Johnson by taking out full-page adverts in conservative newspapers, framing the Brexit choice as between a ‘clean break’ or a ‘bad deal’. He knows what the pollsters know, namely that most Brexit Party voters and a significant slice of the Conservative Party want to leave with no-deal.

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Another problem for Johnson is that he is not, like Theresa May in 2017, dealing with Paul Nuttall. He is going to have to face-off against Farage who still enjoys an incredibly strong relationship with Leavers.

This is underlined by the latest polling from Survation, which asks voters who they trust to “work in your interest on Brexit”. Conservative voters break for Johnson over Farage by 65% to 29%. But Brexit Party voters break for Farage over Johnson by 76% to 18%. How many of the latter are really going to jump ship given these numbers?

Meanwhile, the figures for all Leavers are much closer than No 10 would want (44% break for Johnson, 39% for Farage). This reflects how Farage still has serious appeal among Leavers. Might Conservatives overestimate their reach while underestimating Farage’s?

Such findings might help to explain something else that is hidden away in the numbers: very few Brexit Party voters are currently displaying a strong propensity to switch sides.

When Lord Ashcroft asked these voters how likely they would be on a 0-100 scale to vote Conservative, where zero means ‘no chance’ and 100 means ‘definitely’, the mean score for Brexit Party voters was a rather less than impressive 34. One in three said they would never vote for the Conservatives while another third hover around the ‘50’ mark.

Put simply, unless something changes then these do not look like voters who are about to defect en masse. This probably has much to do with the fact that Farage has never just rallied disillusioned ex-Tories but rather voters who are utterly fed up with the entire political class. Why would most of these voters flock to somebody who often appears as the very embodiment of that political class?

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A final potential obstacle is something that we do not usually associate with Farage and his followers: economics. One of the most interesting findings to emerge in the past week also came from Lord Ashcroft who asked voters how they feel about globalisation. Is this a positive thing that the UK should embrace, or a damaging thing that we should resist?

Contrary to the once popular idea that Farage’s followers were hardcore Thatcherites who long for a Singapore-on-Thames, Brexit Party voters on average, are the ones who see globalisation as damaging to their national interests — even more so than Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters. Will Boris Johnson, alongside Jacob Rees-Mogg, both standard bearers for a ‘global Britain’, really be able to convince these voters that they are economically aligned?

It is the answers to these questions that will ultimately determine the extent to which Boris Johnson cannibalises Nigel Farage’s vote. If he is successful, then he will almost certainly get his majority. If he is not, then we’re back to where we started. But with the country more divided than ever and Brexit still not done.