Things could have been quite different if Jeremy Corbyn swung more decisively to Remain or if Jo Swinson hadn’t been in such a rush to the polls.
First published in November 2019.
Our latest poll of polls shows that the Conservatives are moving into a possibly decisive lead over their rivals in voting intentions for the UK election. This is in large part because Brexit Party support is collapsing. In contrast, while Labour has been moving ahead in the polls in comparison with the Liberal Democrats and minor parties, the Labour uptick in support may not be enough to catch Boris Johnson. This means that the Conservatives could win the general election with a comfortable working majority.
If this happens then the party will very likely be in power until 2024 – the date of the next general election. Johnson’s stated aim is to go for a Canada-plus-like trade deal with the European Union and, once the Conservative victory is confirmed, the EU is very likely to accept it. This would be a “hard Brexit”, with Britain out of the single market and the customs union. It would provide a stimulus to Scottish nationalism and also Northern Ireland’s detachment from the rest of the UK.
How did all this come about, particularly given that recent polling showed that 49% thought that Britain was wrong to leave the EU, in comparison with 40% who thought it was the right thing to do?
Despite evidence of widespread regret about voting to leave, a hard Brexit now looks likely. It might have been different but for four key decisions made by Jeremy Corbyn, 19 Labour MPs, Jo Swinson and Nigel Farage.
1. Corbyn stays on the fence
The first decision was Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to ignore the message of the May 2019 European parliamentary elections and continue to sit on the fence over Brexit. Labour came in third in those elections with only 13.6% of the vote.
There was a case for the fence-sitting strategy before this happened, but this result put paid to that option. Had Labour come out as a Remain party, something the party members, most of the MPs and a clear majority of Labour voters wanted, it would have attracted more Remain supporters. Instead the Remain vote is divided at a time when the Leave vote is rallying around the Conservatives.
2. Labour MPs vote for Johnson’s deal
The second decision was by the 19 Labour MPs who supported Boris Johnson’s deal even though it was largely the same as Theresa May’s, which many of them had rejected in the past. This delivered a valuable prize to the prime minister, boosting the credibility of his slogan: “Get Brexit Done”. This has been his mantra to a weary electorate ever since that parliamentary vote.
Johnson’s withdrawal bill passed its second reading by 329 votes to 299. Had these MPs obeyed the Labour whip and voted against it, the vote would have been lost 310 to 318.
3. Swinson supports an election
A third decision was by Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson to go for an early general election. This enabled Johnson to profit from the surge in the polls caused by the withdrawal bill passing parliament. Dazzled by her party’s success in coming second in the European elections, Swinson announced that her goal was to become prime minister.
Once she committed her party to a general election, Labour had to fall in line and agree to it. Had the election been delayed until the spring of next year, the shine would probably have come off the deal as more and more voters realised that it was merely the start of negotiations with the EU rather than actual Brexit.
4. Farage stands aside
The final decision was Nigel Farage’s recent move to stand down Brexit Party candidates in the 317 seats won by the Conservatives in 2017. This is something that has convinced many Brexit Party supporters that there is no real difference between Farage’s party and the Conservatives, thereby encouraging them to return to the party which most of them supported in the past.
The appeal of the Brexit party in Labour seats is that it is not the Conservative party, while at the same time it supports the Brexit that many of these voters want. The risk is that Labour Brexit party sympathisers will now decide that there is no difference between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party and so will not turn out to vote at all in the key Northern and Midlands seats. If so, this could threaten a Conservative majority, but at the moment Boris Johnson is far enough ahead in the polls to shrug this off.
There is still a little time before election day and levels of support for the various parties continue to evolve. However, if Johnson and the Conservatives do capture a parliamentary majority on December 12, it will give him the freedom to deliver his vision of Brexit and hold on to power for five years.🔷
Written by Paul Whiteley, Professor, Department of Government, University of Essex and Harold D Clarke, Ashbel Smith Professor, School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, University of Texas at Dallas.
Share this article now: