Are the gloomsters right?

By the editor, Aug 15 2019 03:47PM

There’s a lot of gloom among Remainers at the moment. Many are now saying a No Deal Brexit is inevitable on 31 October, or that the general election expected soon is likely to provide Boris Johnson with a majority to pursue a hard Brexit in the years ahead. Some Remainers appear to have more or less given up.

There are good reasons to be pessimistic, but nothing is certain at this stage, and there’s a risk here that fatalism could undermine the prospects of remaining or avoiding the worst effects of leaving. Some reasons to be a little more upbeat are suggested below.

A. Is a no deal exit now probable?

1. It seems to me this still hangs in the balance. It’s still in the power of MPs to stop it, and it’s worth remembering that the overwhelming majority of MPs are against a no deal exit. Remember that MPs voted by an unexpectedly high margin of 41 to prevent prorogation being used to secure a no deal exit. The Tory backbenches now include many ex-ministers who have no incentive to help their Government, which is actively hostile to some of them. It’s also worth remembering that Mr Johnson is not an ideological hard Brexiteer (as his numerous contradictory statements and his voting record on Brexit demonstrate). Many in his Government aren’t particularly keen on a no deal exit either – including the minister responsible for no deal planning, Michael Gove. This could matter, because if there is a battle between the legislature and the executive over this, determination could be key.

2. One option to avoid the outcome is a vote of no confidence in the Government. There is much discussion about whether a caretaker Government could be formed in the aftermath, and dismay about MPs squabbling over who would lead it and what its remit would be. It does seem to me at the moment there are considerable difficulties here. But things could change as 31 October gets closer. For example, there’s a difference between committing to something now that could harm your party or your own interests as an MP (think of Tory rebels particularly), and agreeing to something in the final few days of October, when there’s a potential constitutional crisis, a national emergency, and no other options left.

3. Another option is for Parliament to pass legislation requiring the Government to seek and agree to an extension under Article 50. Difficulties here have been identified: the obvious means of enabling legislation appears, under Parliamentary procedures, to require the Government to agree to it (see However, firstly, there appears to be a reasonable counter-argument to this interpretation, even if it appears to be less favoured. Secondly, bear in mind that the “correct” reading of these procedures is only part of the picture. This isn’t an ordinary legal question where judges (identities unknown) will determine the answer. The person responsible for ruling on these procedures is the Speaker - who is a politician. Given his past form, the Speaker might agree with the alternative interpretation, especially if he considers that Parliament is being deliberately, and unconstitutionally, sidelined by the Government. His view – rather than the view of legal experts – is ultimately the only view that counts. In any event, even if the Speaker agrees that the procedures are restrictive in this way, Parliament could decide to amend its own procedures. That may not be easy, but no one has yet shown it to be impossible.

B. General Election

4. In another scenario, Mr Johnson calls an election before the UK leaves the EU (perhaps claiming that he’s been forced to do so by an obstructionist Parliament). There is a feeling among Remainers that he’d be likely to get a decent majority of seats, given that a significant minority of the electorate support a no deal exit (around 40%, depending on the poll and the question), and given the lack of cohesion among Remain-inclined parties. That remains a distinct possibility, but I’ll set out below some reasons to doubt that prediction.

5. The election might be called because of Brexit, and be badged as being all about Brexit, but not all voters will vote accordingly. They don't always do what they're told. There’s likely to be a lot of voter fatigue, even resentment. And not everyone is obsessed with the Brexit question. People are likely to vote quite differently to the way people voted at the European Parliamentary Elections. The 2017 UKPGE was supposed to be about Brexit, but many people voted along traditional party lines, and didn't return the "expected" result. It may be true that people are starting to shake off old party allegiances, and identify in ways other than the traditional left-right divisions, but that isn't going to happen overnight.

6. The Conservative Party has been in office – in coalition or on its own – for 9 years. Voters get tired of long incumbencies. And this isn’t a party that has dominated Parliament in the way that the Thatcher and Blair Governments did, with three figure majorities, which can take a while to whittle down. Since 1987, the Conservative Party hasn’t won an election with a majority of more than 21.

7. The economy is slowing. Some of this is Brexit-related, and some just cyclical and reflecting trends in the world economy. But whatever the reasons, incumbent Governments struggle to win elections when they are presiding over poor and worsening economic conditions. If an election is called shortly before a no deal exit is planned (or staged), the conditions could be even worse. For those true believers in Brexit, it may not matter. For what may be crucial undecided voters, news stories about preparations for emergency supplies and chaos in the financial markets may persuade them to back alternatives.

8. The Government’s strategy is to appeal to the strongly pro-leave voter. The aim seems to be to recapture those who deserted the Tories for the Brexit Party, and entice Leavers who might previously have voted Labour. But by being so uncompromising – for example, referring to MPs who supported the Theresa May deal as “collaborators” – the message will be off-putting to any former moderate Conservative and potential Conservative supporters who may be, for example, liberal, pro-business, in favour of a soft Brexit. Elections tend to be won by appealing widely, rather than focussing on core supporters.

9. The make-up of constituencies obviously matters too. Even assuming 40% support a no deal exit and would vote Conservative, this doesn’t mean the Conservative have enough to win. There doesn’t seem to be evidence of sufficient support among these groups in the right places to bring about a Conservative majority at present. John Curtice on the Today programme recently considered that the likely result at the moment was a hung Parliament, and that is reflected in current betting forecasts. And that is as things stand – during Mr Johnson’s “honeymoon” period.

10. And what of that honeymoon? It doesn’t seem too rosy. Mr Johnson’s personal ratings are higher than Mrs May’s were when she left office, and the Conservatives have increased their support. But with support for the Conservatives at around 30% or lower, a few points ahead of the Labour Party, this compares unfavourably to the support for Mrs May before the 2017 election, when the Conservatives had a 20 point lead over everyone else. The main explanation for this relatively modest increase in support for the Conservatives in fact is a decrease in support for the Brexit Party – i.e. just a fluctuation in support for the preferred party among committed leavers.

11. The Brexit Party hasn’t gone away, either. It still polls respectably well for a small party. Why is this? Presumably because many committed leavers still don’t trust the Conservatives. Given the fact that Mr Johnson is at the helm, this is hardly surprising. It also indicates a difficulty. The Government is tacking as hard as possible towards an uncompromising leave position, and alienates moderates in the process; but also wants to retain power and has to govern, which requires decisions to be made in the real world. Unfortunately, the real world is a place that the committed Brexiteer believes is a fabrication of the Remain Establishment. So there will always be a purist element of the electorate that won’t support the Government. Some have spoken of an electoral pact between the Brexit Party and the Conservatives, but that seems unlikely at present. The purists will always need somewhere to go that isn’t the party of the Government and the Establishment, and Mr Farage will continue to tap into that.

12. Also, of course, Brexit wouldn’t have happened by the time the election is held. The Government might blame Parliament and the rest of the EU, but the fact remains that under Mr Cameron, then Mrs May, and now Mr Johnson, and despite “31st October, do or die”, the Conservatives would have failed to deliver Brexit, over 3 years after the referendum result. Many may rally to support the Conservative Party as the embodiment of “the people” against “the politicians”. But some voters, even leave voters, may be more cynical, and think – these people are in charge, and they haven’t managed to deliver their core policy after all this time. Why should we give them another shot at it?

13. The Conservative Party is deeply and bitterly divided, and divided parties struggle to win elections. This isn’t just about Brexit. Mr Johnson is distrusted and indeed despised by many Tory MPs, including some of those who backed him for the leadership, out of desperation and hope – hope that for many of them has now been dashed by not having been given a ministerial post. The ERG group of genuine Brexiteers are hoping that Mr Johnson will deliver their prize, but none will be under the illusion that he shares their passion, and will be quick to turn on him if they begin to suspect he isn’t doing what they want. Mr Johnson’s right-hand man, Dominic Cummings, is also despised by many of them, and is not the sort of person to try building bridges. (It's not just Remainers who have a problem with him - he's not been very polite about the ERG, and for example has described David Davis as “thick as mince”.) He has identified 30 Conservative seats that could be sacrificed at the next election to make way for gains made elsewhere. What do these MPs think of their Government, being controlled by this person? Even Government ministers may bridle at Mr Cummings' control-freakery eventually. Meanwhile, the Conservative membership (heavily infiltrated by the Brexit Party) is at odds with many of its MPs. How effectively would the party as a whole fight an election – who would be the candidates where the sitting MPs weren’t in favour of a no deal exit?

Despite what is set out above, there are plenty of reasons to believe a Conservative majority may yet happen. One of them, clearly, is the weakness of the Labour Party, which in its own way is as divided and repellent to many voters as the Conservatives. It is also rash to attempt predictions given the volatility of public opinion, which suggests significant changes in patterns of voting that are only starting to be understood.

I certainly don’t think Remainers should assume that a Conservative majority is unlikely. But fatalism can be as damaging as complacency. If there’s one certainty, I think it’s that there’s still plenty worth fighting for.

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