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How it could all go wrong for Boris During an election campaign, things can change quickly and radically

Boris Johnson. Credit: Stefan Rousseau / POOL / AFP

Boris Johnson. Credit: Stefan Rousseau / POOL / AFP

September 2, 2019   8 mins

Britain is heading for a general election. After Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament, and amid renewed efforts this week by rebel MPs to block no-deal and extend the Brexit deadline, it is only a matter of time until something gives and an election is called.

It would be Britain’s fifth nationwide contest in four years. It would also be highly unpredictable. Yet conventional wisdom already tells us that it would most probably deliver a healthy Tory majority. You don’t need to spend long in SW1 to hear confident Conservatives pointing to Jeremy Corbyn’s abysmal leadership ratings, Labour’s dire position in the polls and how Jo Swinson and the resurgent Liberal Democrats are splitting the Remain vote. The most popular prediction goes something like this: constrained by parliament, and rebels from inside his own party, Boris Johnson goes to the country with a ‘people versus Parliament’ message and is rewarded with a massive majority.

But hang on a minute. Isn’t one of the key lessons from the past decade that conventional wisdom should always be challenged. So let’s do that: how could it go wrong for Johnson?

First of all, if you work out average support in the polls for all of the parties over the past month, then the Conservative Party is not sitting in majority territory. It is sitting on 32% with Labour on 24%, the Lib Dems 18%, Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party on 13%, the Greens on 6% and the SNP on 4%. With these numbers, Boris Johnson might just squeak into majority territory but it would be close — and volatile.

Then, there is the main lesson from the election in 2017, which many observers have already forgotten: during campaigns things can change both quickly and radically.

So let’s say that, as in 2017, Labour runs a competent and fairly populist campaign of its own. Corbyn spends six weeks unloading on “Britain Trump”, framing Boris as the embodiment of the wealthy elite and painting the Tories as having more interest in building a Singapore-on-Thames than helping ordinary workers or the environment.

Let’s also say that while Labour and the Liberal Democrats steer clear of a formal alliance, enough Remainers have the good sense to vote tactically, switching to Labour in Labour-Conservative marginals or to the Lib Dems in seats where they are the main opposition. Sure, tactical voting rarely works but maybe this time it is different.

And let’s assume that, while the Conservatives lose a handful of seats in Scotland, where they are no longer led by Ruth Davidson, Johnson struggles to win over Leavers in Labour territory who might look at him and decide that, actually, he isn’t really like them at all.

If you can’t quite picture this, then you only need go back to 2017, when despite endless talk about a Conservative raid on Labour heartlands, Theresa May only walked away with half-a-dozen pro-Brexit Labour seats.

All of these scenarios are entirely plausible. But there is also something else that could go wrong for Johnson. It concerns the one person who Conservatives have consistently underestimated.

Deliver [Brexit] or politically die”, boomed the leader of the Brexit Party last week. Nigel Farage was in town to send a message to Johnson – it was an offer and a threat.

The offer? If the Conservatives commit fully to leaving the EU without a deal, then the Brexit Party is willing to join them in an electoral pact, providing unconditional support. The threat? If Johnson instead pivots away from a no-deal and back to a version of Theresa May’s unpopular withdrawal deal, then the Brexit Party will unload all that it has against the Conservatives at the next election.

“I want to make this pledge from the Brexit Party”, Farage continued. “The withdrawal agreement is not Brexit. The withdrawal agreement is a betrayal of what 17.4 million people voted for and if you go with the withdrawal agreement … we will fight you in every single seat up and down the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.”

The problem for Johnson is that things are starting to work against him and for Farage. Clearly, much depends on timing. If the Prime Minister survives the challenge this week, and goes on to orchestrate a no-deal Brexit then Farage and the Brexit Party become less of a problem. The Farage fox is shot.

But if he does not, if he is forced to scrap a no-deal, or even manages to retain the threat of a no-deal but then pushes for a revised withdrawal agreement at the end of October before calling a general election, then it is easy to see how Farage — who will be left as the only politician in Britain advocating a clean break from the EU — remains a major obstacle to a Conservative majority. It is true that most voters do not want a no-deal Brexit. But it is also true that many Conservative voters do.

Brexit Party insiders are adamant that if Johnson pushes for a revised version of Mrs May’s deal, then they will throw everything at the election. As one said to me: “We have not come all this way to sign up to May’s deal, which even with changes to the backstop keeps us very closely aligned to the EU. If necessary, we will burn the house down.” There has long been a nihilistic tendency among the Faragists. Many would prefer to bring the Tories down and see Prime Minister Corbyn, than see their life’s work reduced to a soft Brexit.

This is why a revised withdrawal agreement — or a ‘BRINO’ (Brexit In Name Only) — could easily breathe new life into the Brexit Party. And this is why it is investing so heavily in preparation for the next election. The party has already selected more than 500 parliamentary candidates, has money and has established itself as a political brand.

It also has something UKIP did not at the last general election. Conservatives who point to UKIP’s collapse in 2017 should remember that their challenger was led by the unknown and ridiculed Paul Nuttall. This time will be different. Farage personally distrusts Johnson. He represents the very establishment that the Brexit Party leader has been railing against his entire life. I suspect that Farage will both want and relish the fight.

It is no secret that Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and the team in No 10 have little time for Farage. But they also know that they cannot ignore him. This is not the 2016 referendum. The context is completely different. At a general election, constituency races are greatly affected by challenger parties. And with the Brexit Party pulling much of its vote from disillusioned Tories this challenger really matters.

We can already see this in the polls. Since team Johnson arrived in Downing Street, average support for the Brexit Party has fallen. In the month before Johnson’s arrival Farage was averaging 20%; he has since averaged 14%. This reflects how many Eurosceptic Tories have ‘returned home’. One month before Johnson became Prime Minister nearly 40 per cent of people who had voted Conservative in 2017 had defected to Farage. In the latest polls, it has tumbled to 18%.

But the problem for Johnson is that it has not fallen enough. Farage still holds more than one in four Leavers, including a significant number of ex-Conservatives who favour a no-deal Brexit and are clearly waiting to make up their minds about where Johnson will land. This is more than enough to cost the Conservatives dozens of marginal seats, perhaps even a majority. The problem was on full display at the recent by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire, where the Brexit Party cost Johnson an early victory despite only polling 10%.

Some Conservatives point to 2015 and argue that they were still able to win a majority back then despite facing a serious Farage insurgency. But this owed much to Cameron stealing 27 seats from the Liberal Democrats — an avenue that will not be open to Johnson and his team at the next election. Given the inevitable backlash from Remainers, the resurgent Liberal Democrats and probable losses in Scotland, the Conservatives will have less room for manoeuvre.

An additional problem is that the Conservatives routinely fall into the trap of believing that all of Farage’s followers are just like them, and only need a slight nudge to ‘come home’. But this is to overlook the nature of his vote.

Farage’s following has always had three tributaries: anti-EU, anti-immigration and anti-Westminster. Johnson is appealing to the first — though he could easily suffer if he is effectively forced to give up on a no-deal this week. But he is not doing much to speak to the other two. Promises to do more to tackle regional inequality might help. But will the Brexit Party’s mainly working-class voters defect back to a liberal-conservative who is relaxed on immigration and embodies the upper-class establishment? I doubt it. It seems more plausible to me that this vote will remain quite ‘sticky’ — Farage will hold onto more than enough support to cause problems.

This is why some Conservatives are — I know for a fact — thinking seriously about Farage’s offer. Those who are in favour point to a number of things. Put the two parties together and you get close to 50% of the national vote. Two pro-Brexit parties, the thinking goes, would unify the Leave electorate, exploit a divided Remain Alliance and have a much better chance in the 158 Labour seats that voted for Brexit in 2016.

Such a dramatic realignment of British politics would also be helped by the fact that while many Labour leavers would never entertain ‘the Tories’, they certainly would entertain Farage. Johnson would therefore be likely leave the election with a majority large enough to allow him to be a truly transformative Prime Minister, with little opposition to his domestic agenda. Farage argues this alliance would “be unstoppable”.

But others are deeply sceptical about a pact. First, it is not clear how it would work. One model was developed in 2010, when UKIP discreetly agreed a series of informal non-aggression pacts with committed Eurosceptic MPs. The deal was simple. UKIP would stand down against MPs who could be trusted to make the case for a referendum on EU membership in the House of Commons. In the end, as I documented in a book with Caitlin Milazzo, seven deals were made. These included people who would go on to play a key role in the battle for Brexit: Douglas Carswell, Mark Reckless, Philip Hollobone, Philip Davies and Janice Atkinson, alongside a couple of others. Four of the seven won their seats and three (Carswell, Reckless, Akinson) later defected to UKIP.

A similar deal today might see the Brexit Party agree to stand down against Conservatives who are both committed to a no-deal Brexit and who consistently opposed May’s deal – there are nearly 30 of these so-called ‘Spartans’.  So MPs such as Steve Baker, John Baron and Peter Bone would not have to worry about internecine warfare. In return, the Conservatives might give the Brexit Party a free pass in a select number of Labour seats where UKIP finished second in 2015, where a majority of people then voted for Brexit in 2016, and where, in reality, the Conservative Party has little chance of causing an upset. These might include northern seats such as Heywood and Middleton, Rotherham, Hartlepool or Rother Valley.

Look at the numbers, though, and you realise that this does not really make sense. Farage’s hand is weakened by the fact that most of the Conservative ‘Spartans’ are safe and do not need a deal with the Brexit Party to hold their seats. There are a few exceptions. Steve Baker, James Duddridge, Adam Holloway, Andrea Jenkyns, David Jones and, in particular, Lee Rowley in North East Derbyshire and Theresa Villiers in Chipping Barnet are more vulnerable, with majorities of fewer than 10,000 votes, and some of just a few hundred. But most hold large majorities of more than 10,000 or 20,000 votes. There is little prospect that Bill Cash, Owen Paterson, John Baron, Peter Bone, Suella Braverman, Mark Francois and Bernard Jenkin will lose their seats, for example. So why bother with a deal?

A pact would really only make sense if it were to focus on marginal seats. If, rather than select seats according to Farage’s preferred criteria – loyalty to no-deal — the Brexit Party simply agrees to stand down in, say, the 50 most marginal seats, from Southampton Itchen to Stockton South, this would allow the Conservatives to consolidate the Leave vote. It would also improve their chances of holding back the Liberal Democrats and Labour along the ‘Blue Wall’ in the southwest. But that would require Farage trusting Johnson and his team to really deliver a clean break.

And this is where we encounter another problem: personalities. Dominic Cummings has made no secret of his disdain for Farage, while Johnson will want to put clear blue water between his politics and those of the Brexit Party leader. Farage, meanwhile, thinks that Cummings is “untrustworthy” and is not a “true believer” in Brexit. He is very distrusting of Johnson and probably does not view him as a ‘proper’ social conservative.

Given the extreme volatility in British politics, the continuing Brexit fallout and the likelihood of a fresh general election, Boris Johnson may be tempted to go to the country much sooner than people think. But he will also need to come up with a way of side-stepping the Brexit Party, which will settle for nothing less than a clean break from the EU.

Farage will happily unload all that he has left to stop a soft Brexit, even if this means splitting the Leave vote, making it harder for Johnson to win a commanding majority and potentially putting Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10 Downing Street. And this is where we meet the greatest Brexit irony of them all: the man who devoted his life to Brexit will end up preventing it from happening.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.


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