By the editor, Dec 20 2019 05:11PM
Some thoughts – loosely linked – about the result of the 2019 general election.
WHAT CAN BE LEARNED?
Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of commentary already about the reasons for the Conservative victory. More surprisingly, much of it has taken the form of the counterfactual, presented as a confident assertion of probability, rather than as interesting speculation. For example: if only Labour had tilted more towards Leave, or more towards Remain, or if only it had backed Theresa May’s deal, or refused to vote for Article 50 – the result would have been different.
It’s surprising because – as you’d have assumed many of these commentators would know – it’s impossible to predict with any degree of probability that the present would have turned out in a certain way if something about the past had been different. I’ve explained why in another context, in another post (http://inkspring.co.uk/blog/4590596332/Would-technology-have-won-Australia-the-2005-Ashes/10840863). In short: there are too many variables.
Of more practical and long-lasting use are the statistics being gathered, not only about the actual votes, but also about what people have said about their reasons for voting (albeit that the latter obviously need to be treated with caution). Three points emerging from this data are reasonably uncontroversial. Firstly, the Conservative share of the vote didn’t go up by very much; the Liberal Democrat share of the vote went up significantly; and the Labour share of the vote went down dramatically. Secondly, the main reason voters gave for not voting Labour was its leader. Thirdly, voters were unusually repelled by both main parties, if not all parties, including their leaders. Usually there is some evidence of enthusiasm for opposition parties, or of (perhaps grudging) admiration for incumbent parties. This election seemed to present large numbers of voters with a particularly unpalatable choice of evils.
And that has a bearing on the part Brexit played in the election. It was this election that decided whether the UK would leave the EU, and Brexit was the trigger for calling the election in the first place; and yet both main parties simply refused to talk about it. It is interesting that the winning side’s slogan was “Get Brexit Done” – hardly a rallying cry to the Brexiteer enthusiast. This is the slogan that played well in the focus groups before the election. It is the attitude of the voter who is fed up of the Brexit saga, just wants to get it over with, isn’t expecting anything particularly positive to come of it, doesn’t care too much about the details or the consequences, but believes that the referendum result should be respected, and wants there to be a Government that will stop dithering and just get the country over the line, so that everyone can get on with their lives and concentrate on what’s of more immediate importance. It is not an appeal based on the positive (albeit similarly dishonest) messages of the original Leave campaign.
So there was no party representing enthusiastic Leavers. Remainers often faced a difficult decision. Labour vacillated about whether it effectively supported a Remain position or not. The Liberal Democrats adopted a revoke position (which many Remainers apparently recoiled from), and then backtracked. Ex-Conservative Remain-leaning MPs stood in some seats. Many Remain voters whose politics were otherwise on the centre ground found it difficult to vote for an outcome that would result in Jeremy Corbyn moving into Downing Street.
In short, there was one clear Leave position, represented by one major party (“let’s put this sorry mess behind us”); and several muddled Remain positions, which couldn’t counter this simple appeal. The final victory of the Leavers – like its first victory, at the referendum – was a triumph of message over substance. As everyone who is reasonably informed knows, Brexit will not be “done” when the withdrawal agreement is passed, as the message sought to convey. But for many voters, it was good enough.
So, emphatic though the 80 seat majority result was, it shouldn’t be taken as reflecting the degree of enthusiasm in the country for Brexit generally, or the Government’s proposed version of it in particular.
On Brexit, and on other matters, the many people who voted so reluctantly for the Government may be particularly quick to judge it harshly if things don’t go the way they hoped.
A SILVER LINING?
There may be one silver lining, although it has nothing to do with the UK’s relationship with Europe. The damage from the 2016 referendum was much more widespread than that. One of the referendum's most threatening legacies was the weakening of support for parliamentary democracy. Now that the Leavers have won after a parliamentary general election, there will be no more talk of a “Remainer Parliament” thwarting the “will of the people”. That isn’t to say that the poison has been removed completely. The new Government has called itself, laughably, the “People’s Government”. More menacingly, its manifesto includes proposals to look at “the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts”, suggesting that there may be an attempt to increase the powers of the executive. There could yet be challenges from the hardline Brexiteers to the new Government that seek to draw on their own interpretation of the referendum mandate.
However, the potential constitutional crisis that was brewing in the autumn has, I think, been averted. Both Remainers and Leavers seem to have accepted the result of the general election. It is worth briefly reflecting on what this means.
There had been an argument that the outcome of the referendum represented a superior form of democracy, which trumped that of any election, and accordingly, any Parliament. To some extent this was widely accepted, even by many Remainers, which has been why many Remainers were attracted to the idea of a second referendum, despite the obvious drawbacks to it. As argued in the previous post, this view is in part explained by the particular circumstances of the referendum, which was not seen as being “owned” by the Government that held it, as other referendums have been.
It is clear that the new Conservative Government wholly owns Brexit, at least for now. Those of us who object to Brexit don’t like the fact that it’s happening, of course. Many of us also consider the current voting system for general elections is flawed, and wonder whether a different one might have yielded a different result. But there was a referendum on that too, of course, in 2011, and the status quo was preserved. So this is our system of democracy – we’re stuck with it for now. And it’s returned a Government with an emphatic majority, and a clear mandate, to take the UK out of the EU on the basis of a withdrawal agreement that’s already drawn up.
Of course, the precise details of the final withdrawal settlement aren’t clear yet. The Conservative Party, no doubt deliberately (following the Vote Leave campaign strategy), hasn’t spelled this out. But the electorate was free to reject it for that reason. After three and half years, there was a huge volume of information about what Brexit might mean, depending on the different ways in which the UK might leave, and extensive exposure of the dishonest statements and mistakes made by the previous Government and other supporters of Brexit. Maybe many voters weren’t interested enough to read much about this. But again, that’s their choice. They can cast their vote with or without that considering that information: that’s democracy.
It's purely anecdotal, but I’ve heard several people, both Remainers and Leavers, express some relief that at least this general election has settled the issue of whether the UK leaves, and that at least the country gets a chance to move on, despite differing views about the ultimate destination. It’s possible that the election, having answered the question of whether (if not how) the UK leaves, might help to heal some of the bitterness. And it is clear that the new Government will be held to account for whatever shape Brexit takes over the next few years. That seems to me a healthier state of affairs than existed previously.
WHAT SORT OF BREXIT?
Opinion seems divided on whether the Government will choose a soft or hard Brexit, though inclining now towards the latter. I think worth considering the following points on this.
Boris Johnson will, I think we can assume, want something that a) is quick and easy, so freeing up time for other projects, b) is not immediately economically (i.e. electorally) damaging, c) fits in with other policy objectives, and d) he can actually get past his own MPs. He’s unlikely to get a deal that ticks all four of these boxes, so which assume higher or lower importance will depend at the time what his priorities are. He won’t be the hostage of the 30 or so hardline Brexiteer MPs as he and Mrs May were previously. It’s possible that some of the new MPs may be of the same breed (recently it looked as though the ERG might have increased its membership slightly), though some of them represent areas that might particularly suffer from a hard exit (for example, constituencies in the North-East and the Midlands dependent on the car industry and other manufacturing sectors).
In any event, Mr Johnson himself is clearly not an ideological Brexiteer. So if he chooses a hard Brexit, it will be for other reasons than any convictions about Europe.
In fact, it’s hard to discern any convictions in him at all, other than those concerning himself. It seems to me mistaken to assume that, for example, because he was apparently in favour of liberal policies while London Mayor, he will suddenly adopt liberal policies now that he has a comfortable majority as prime minister. His record is one of bending and flipping towards whichever policy position best secures him support in any given situation.
I think it is worth, however, considering that he may not end up driving this particular policy. He shows little interest in the detail of Brexit (or indeed, in any detail – he prefers to delegate generally). A lot may depend on the Cabinet reshuffle. Will the ERG continue to dominate? The choice of other personnel could give a clue as well, now that the focus has shifted from the limited priorities of the previous administration. Dominic Cummings had been hired to get a Brexit deal through, and win an election – but both have now been secured. So why is he staying on – how long for, and in what capacity? He has radical ideas, and a particular vision of Brexit (not the same as the ERG, but not a soft Brexit either). If he continues to dominate No.10, this may indicate a direction of travel.
So in summary, it seems to me too early to say what flavour of Brexit we’ll be getting, except that it would be surprising if Mr Johnson allowed any development that he thought would damage his prospects of getting re-elected, and also that it may well depend on who else holds the key positions within the Government
It is interesting that the Government is disbanding the Department for Exiting the EU, and is to stop referring to “Brexit” in its communications. This is the natural consequence of a Government elected to “Get Brexit Done”: get it all out of the way on 31 January 2020, hope the focus moves elsewhere. And maybe the voters (or those they’ll need for the next election) will stop caring after that. But the early signs are that the debate in the country isn’t going to go away, that there are already divisions in the Government and the Conservative Party about the next stage of the Brexit process, that there are potential difficulties brewing already, for example in Northern Ireland and Scotland, which could yet make it difficult for the Government to control this narrative as it wishes. The saga seems destined to continue.