Friday, 6 September 2019

Against The Clock

So what have we learnt this week? First, Boris Johnson is going all-in on no-deal. The absence of any substantive proposals to amend the Withdrawal Agreement is clear evidence of this. To that end, marginalising senior anti-no-dealers within the Tory ranks, like Philip Hammond and David Gauke, makes sense. Symbolically, it marks the death of "One Nation Toryism" and its replacement by a more distinctly nationalist temper, which will be seen by many on the right as the fulfilment of Thatcher's project. The risk is that this not only alienates Tory-voting remainers, but that it also disturbs centrist Conservatives who fear the associated social and economic baggage of a sharp turn to the right. As Thatcher discovered, they'll suppress their qualms and support you while you're winning, but they'll drop you sharpish if defeat looms. Johnson knows he is running against the clock, hence his determination to meet the 31st of October deadline.

Second, it's now clear that Johnson always intended to call an early general election. The lengthy prorogation looks less like a wheeze to ensure no-deal by blocking MPs' counter-measures and more like a plan to create a benign environment, in which the government is free from scrutiny in the Commons and can rely on sympathetic TV and press coverage, before the start of the official election campaign. That most of Johnson's public commitments this week have been campaign photo opportunities suggests that Number 10's plan is to use the infrastructure of the state for partisan advantage. The prompt removal of the whip from 21 MPs suggests that he always intended to terminate the current parliament rather than compromise to maintain the government's slender majority. Again, Johnson's brutality in defenestrating veterans such as Ken Clarke and Nicholas Soames makes tactical sense, even if it does risk alienating some party members and makes it uncomfortable for his media supporters.

The general assumption is that a more Faragist party will not only recover the reactionary voters who peeled off to UKIP or abstained under Cameron and May, but it will also win a significant part of the "white working class" vote, particularly in Labour's "Northern heartlands". Of course there has never been a shortage of reactionary working class voters, but they have traditionally cleaved to the Conservative Party in any case. What's doubtful is whether the Tories can widen their appeal to Labour voters for whom patriotism and social conservatism are part of a bundle with an interventionist state and well-funded public services. Media safaris to the North of England will no doubt continue to find plenty of "lifelong" Labour voters who will now back the Tories because of Brexit, but there is little evidence to date of a sustained shift in voting patterns. The Tories are widely mistrusted among working class voters and that isn't going to change overnight, particularly when they are led by a man with a reputation for deceit and treachery.

Labour's declining support in the polls since April has largely been the counterpart to a rise in support for the Liberal Democrats. Given the binary choice of the next election, assuming it happens before Brexit, there is likely to be a shift back to Labour. Likewise, the oscillation in Tory support finds its counterpart in support for the Brexit Party. Johnson's primary aim is to attract that party's supporters back to the Tory fold. Attracting Labour voters is a secondary consideration, even if it suits the media to emphasise it as part of the anti-Labour narrative. Johnson needs not only to focus the campaign on Brexit, he also needs to convince leave voters who want no-deal that he can be trusted to deliver. To that end, he needs to rule out the possibility of a last-minute deal with the EU - in effect a revival of May's deal - hence he can now only commit to no-deal. The opposition's emphasis on Johnson's untrustworthiness is tactically sensible, as it helps shore up support for the Brexit Party, but this could be neutralised if Farage formally endorses him as part of an electoral pact.

Fighting an election before the 31st of October would give Johnson momentum, while also stymieing the possibility of a counter-revolution within the Conservative party. The clarion call would be less "kick out the bums", though that would undoubtedly figure, than the trusty old demand to "give me the tools to finish the job". A later election would be more defensive: save Brexit rather than win a clean break. If Parliament enacts the Benn bill, which would require Johnson to go cap in hand to the EU27 and request a further extension, there is a chance that he will simply resign. A caretaker government under Jeremy Corbyn, which now looks more likely simply because the Tories would see it as in their interest to abstain in a vote of confidence short-term, would then have to take responsibility for the extension, thus getting the Tory leader off the hook.

This would be an outcome that would satisfy both Johnson and Corbyn. The former could campaign against a Parliament that "stole" Brexit, while the latter could point out that the roof didn't fall in while he was in Number 10 and could (bizarre thought) fight the election as the incumbent Prime Minister. Though Johnson's failure to deliver Brexit by the end of next month would be an embarrassment, an extension of the Article 50 process to the end of January means that he can still advance the demand for a majority big enough to secure Brexit in an election in November. The belief that he would be fatally damaged by this setback ignores that he is a politician who routinely rises above his own failures and is incapable of embarrassment (witness his response on Wednesday to the demand he apologise for this "letterbox" comments). Johnson has the ability to survive blows that would fell any other politician.

What he doesn't have is time. This week he has fractured the Conservative Party. While it would probably hang together were an election campaign underway, it will almost certainly descend into civil war at the earliest opportunity. Johnson's hopes of reconstituting the party with Farage's foot soldiers may prove forlorn. Once a no-deal Brexit is formally achieved, there is no guarantee that this constituency won't fragment and disperse as it did in 2017, and until Brexit happens it will remain a thorn in his side. Johnson needs Brexit done and a quick election victory, preferably in October, to give him the five years it will take to rebuild the Conservative Party and to defray the likely costs and compromises that will arise from our departure from the EU. If the election is put off till November, or even December, he risks the Tory civil war erupting during conference season.


  1. Why are reactionary working-class voters (which are believed to be what is deterring Labour from turning decisively against Brexit) usually identified with the North, when Labour's actual weak zone is more centred on the Midlands (the only region where Labour lost as many seats to the Tories in 2017, as they gained from the Tories)?

    1. Because the media are mostly middle-class Southerners. They regularly forget the Midlands exists (along with Wales, Scotland & Ireland) and their ideas of the North are formed from caricatures.

    2. Why is Labour currently so weak in the Midlands? Is it because too many people never forgave them for letting Rover die (just as many northerners hate the Tories for closing coal mines)?

    3. The Midlands has always been swing territory, so I'm not sure if all that much has changed. Rover may have had an impact, but most of the car industry & other manufacturing, not to mention heavy industry in the region, contracted under the Tories.

      I suspect Labour's current relative "weakness" reflects long-term demographic change, notably the growth of the suburbs and small towns (many now commuter dormitories for London). Basically, the Midlands has become more middle-class. The story of Northampton council's bankruptcy is perhaps more significant than some former metal-basher in Castle Bromwich moaning about immigration.

  2. Isn't it the case that while centrist politicians are mostly Remainers, actual "swing voters" (ie the ones to whom Blair owed his three big wins) tended to be heavily Leave? That could mean that any meaningful Labour party (ie socialist, anti-Brexit or preferably both) would struggle to repeat Blair's achievement in wooing these voters.

    On the issue of working-class Midlanders being displaced by London commuters, how significant is it that Nuneaton (the most famous Midland bellwether constituency) has a station on the West Coast Main Line?

    Perhaps the demographic change you mentioned suggests that the decline in Midlands GVA isn't fully reflected in a decline in local prosperity (because a lot of the inhabitants – as either London commuters or pensioners – aren't dependent on the local economy for an income)?

    Is Labour nationally being screwed over by a self-gerrymandering of voters similar to that which doomed Hillary Clinton in 2016, when young liberals fled the Rust Belt to non-competitive coastal states, while right-wing boomers flooded into Florida?

    1. Leave won in 2016 because it got reactionaries who had given up on elections to turn out. They're not swing voters. Labour's task isn't to win them over but to persuade them to stay home.

  3. You originally chose Sunderland as your example to analyse – is the North East perhaps different from the rest of the country in that working-class reactionaries who elsewhere drifted to the Tories and UKIP just gave up on elections in the North East (because however resentful of New Labour they were, they couldn't bring themselves to vote for the Tories who had wiped out the coal mines)?

    And weren't we originally discussing how to combat the Toryfication of the Midlands?

    1. I don't think the NE is unusual. The leave campaign's success in enticing reactionaries to turn out & vote applied nationwide. If it were just a matter of Sunderland, remain would have won.

      My point about the Midlands is that I don't think it's particularly different to the rest of the country, or at least no more different than it's ever been.

      The trope of Labour's "problem" had been around since the 1920s. I remember when Labour was being "wiped out" in London.

    2. "The leave campaign's success in enticing reactionaries to turn out & vote applied nationwide."

      I wasn't disputing that: what I was suggesting is that in the North East more such people were still abstaining from General Elections in 2015 (due to residual anti-Tory resentment over pit closures), while elsewhere in England they were voting Tory or UKIP.