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By the editor, Feb 27 2020 01:26PM


What does “freedom of movement” mean to people? In the UK, I think it is generally regarded as a mixture of good and bad, depending on political views: as having the advantage of allowing people to work, study, and otherwise move across Europe with ease, and giving us access to the EU’s single market; and having the disadvantage of inhibiting the country from imposing its own limits on immigration. Some see it as all advantage, and others as all disadvantage, and some see it as a mixed bag. Few politicians would dare to claim it was an unalloyed good. To the extent that it is seen as good, it tends to be for economic and social, rather than political, reasons.


In the institutions of the European Union, and in other European states, I think there is more to it than this, and worth reflecting on why, and what the implications of that are.


As far as the European Parliament is concerned, “freedom of movement and residence for persons in the EU is the cornerstone of Union citizenship”, and it goes further, stating that the Schengen area (which many in the UK regard as having gone much too far) “is widely regarded as one of the primary achievements of the European Union”, despite acknowledging the strains it placed on the EU from migrants and refugees from elsewhere (https://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/147/free-movement-of-persons). The European Commission refers to it as a “fundamental principle” (https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=457). This Commission press release refers to evidence that “more than two thirds of Europeans say that free movement is beneficial for their country”: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_13_1151.


The implementation of the principle of freedom of movement was undertaken gradually, affecting limited categories of workers to start with, only applying to all workers within EEC states from 1968, and given wider application to all citizens from 2004. Nevertheless, there is an aspect to the principle that seems to be intrinsic to the project as a whole, and not just its economic functioning.


Freedom of movement is of course restricted by borders, and borders in mainland Europe shifted considerably over the centuries, particularly after wars. After the First World War, and the disintegration of several empires, there was a concerted attempt for the first time to impose new borders to differentiate “nation states”. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, it obviously created difficulties that were hard to resolve. What if there was an area including people from more than one nation? How should a person’s nationality be determined? What if populations changed?


It is often noted that the creation of the EU (as it is now) was inspired by a wish to bind countries closer together to avoid the horrors of the Second World War. But there were plenty of other tragedies throughout the 20th century arising from attempts to impose borders and force people out of the wrong areas and into the right ones. Instead of freedom of movement, much of the history of that century was one of forced movement – often what has since become known as “ethnic cleansing”. The following are examples, but this list is by no means exhaustive:

• 1.5 million Armenians were forced into the deserts of Syria and Iraq by the Ottoman Empire in 1915-16, around a half of whom died as a result.

• 100,000 German-speakers were expelled from Alsace-Lorraine from 1918-21, and many more who remained were persecuted.

• Under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, 1.5 million Greeks and Turks were ”exchanged”, most of them forcibly.

• From 1935 to 1938, the Soviet Union deported hundreds of thousands of members of national minorities to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

• Over 12 million Germans were forcibly transferred to Germany after the Second World War, mostly women, children and the elderly, about 1 million dying in the process (some of them tortured, starved, and worked to death in the same camps used for the Holocaust).

• From 1992, Serbia began systematically removing Muslims from Bosnian territory, triggering wars, atrocities, and a sequence of forced population movements, displacing several million people.


Apart from the immense human suffering involved at the time – and forced movement inevitably has a high death rate – there must have been a significant impact on the collective memories of societies affected. Some territories experienced forced movements several times over, and some people found themselves forced to move twice. So for example there were people who were forced out of Germany for being Jewish under the Nazi regime, who were later forced back into Germany for being German. The processes for determining which national or racial group a person belonged to – and so what rights (if any) a person may have – could be complex, bureaucratic, and often illogical. Even the Nazi regime gave up on agreeing a test of “Aryanness”, and eventually left it to local “ethnocrats” outside Germany to decide who should be so classified. After all, what does it mean to be a “German”, or “Pole” or anything else, after decades of shifting borders, population transfers, and mixed parentage?


After decades of this, it’s unsurprising that there’s been an attempt by the countries concerned to soften borders between them, and encourage citizens to live where they want to.


The UK’s borders have been, of course, more or less fixed by the sea (the exception, the Northern Irish border, serves to demonstrate some of the increased difficulties that land borders entail). So although it’s had its own experience of the horrors of the wars of the last century, it hasn’t had the experiences referred to above. It’s notable that one of the most high profile messages of the 2016 EU referendum campaign was a poster of a line of migrants and refugees headed “Breaking Point”. The message being: “this is what happens in other countries – this is what free movement does – we don’t want this here.”


Not all those in favour of leaving the EU share that sentiment of course. Nevertheless, the process of leaving the EU is now firmly in the hands of our current Government. Its chief negotiator is David Frost. His speech of 17 February 2020, setting out the UK Government’s approach to negotiating a new relationship with the EU, was strongly supported by the Prime Minister. The speech referred, approvingly, to a counter-revolution, seeking to reverse the first “transnational” revolution of the EU project:


“The second revolution is of course the reaction to the first – the reappearance on the political scene not just of national feeling but also of the wish for national decision-making and the revival of the nation state. Brexit is the most obvious example for that, but who can deny that we see something a bit like it in different forms across the whole Continent of Europe?”


The “reappearance… of national feeling” is a toned-down way of saying “re-emergence of nationalism”, and the other “forms” being obliquely referred to include the burgeoning far right movements in Germany, France and elsewhere, and the repressive governments of Poland and Hungary.


So the battle lines are drawn for our current “negotiation” with the EU: nationalism against transnationalism. On the one side, a belief that nationalism is a fact of life, and strong borders are needed between nations. On the other, a belief that such feelings can be transcended, and borders can be relaxed, or even abolished. Pessimism versus optimism, or reality versus naivety – depending where you stand.


By the editor, Jan 31 2020 04:50PM

I remember listening to this, many years ago, from “Summoned by Bells” by John Betjeman, and remain as puzzled by it now as then:


“Some know for all their lives that Christ is God,

Some start upon that arduous love affair

In clouds of doubt and argument; and some

(My closest friends) seem not to want His love -

And why this is I wish to God I knew.”


My puzzlement will be shared by other atheists: how can you reject love when there’s nothing to indicate that it’s being offered to you?


But my puzzlement at Betjeman is matched by the puzzlement Betjeman felt about people like me - as to our mental states; as to “why this is”.


It’s for this reason that there isn’t much point in an argument between those with faith and those without, as to who is “right”. They are mutually incomprehensible positions.


There are some political positions, too, that become articles of faith. So for some, the virtues of socialism are self-evident, and for others capitalism is immutable. Such opinions may be in part based on evidence, but become matters of moral certainty. The same is true of other political philosophies, and some more specific issues, whether it might be nationalisation, immigration, criminal justice, HS2 or Donald Trump. We’re all guilty to some extent of tending to adopt and defend positions on matters before we’ve considered the evidence in any particular case. We like to think we’re open to being persuaded if the right facts are put before us. But there comes a point in many disagreements where the dispute is really about values rather than empirical truth. And at this point, there’s nothing to gain by arguing further. Neither side will prevail, or even make any headway; neither side will understand the other side’s point of view. It doesn’t stop people continuing, of course, and this is often when disagreements turn nasty – they turn personal, because they’re essentially about values, and by implication about character.


Betjeman’s lines came back to me at this time because of the feelings generated by the UK’s departure from the EU tonight. Despite the bitterness and sadness from some on one side, and the glee and nastiness from some on the other, there are signs of people (from both sides) wanting to heal the divisions of the last few years. One step in this process may be recognising that differences of view can’t easily be understood, and that people can’t be reconciled simply by attempting to resolve factual disputes.


It’s odd from one perspective that the EU has caused such strong feelings. It wasn’t previously high on people’s list of concerns. Such ideologies as there are on either side (theories of fraternalism versus theories of national sovereignty) aren’t widely shared. Instead, I think (as others have suggested) that Brexit became a proxy for a more deep-seated cultural divide - highlighting, exacerbating and warping it.


This means that sometimes we engage in our Brexit battles on the assumption that our differences are to do with Brexit itself, when in fact they’re to do with something quite different. That can make it even harder than in other contexts to understand where another person is coming from. Meanwhile the tone of the debate has become at times so vitriolic, simplistic, and tribal, that it’s difficult to make the effort to understand in the first place. And at the core of some of these issues are differences of values, which run into the difficulties mentioned above.


Someone’s concerns about “sovereignty”, for example, may have one of, or several, many different causes. But it may well be that at core this person has a different view on the importance of “place” to someone else. And that is likely to be a difference about something deep-rooted and instinctive, rather than something reducible to reasoned argument. So it may be that there’s a fundamental psychological difference between that person and someone who isn’t as bothered about the issue, and it isn’t easy for either to comprehend the other’s perspective.


It still seems worth trying to understand such matters, if we’re to avoid simply trading insults. But perhaps we ought also to acknowledge that we may end up, like Betjeman, saying - and really meaning it, not out of exasperation, but out of recognition of our human limitations – “and why this is I wish to God I knew.”


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


FINALLY


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.



By the editor, Sep 26 2019 04:00PM

Imagine that the Conservative Government had decided to campaign for Leave in the 2016 Referendum, and imagine also that the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party had voted against calling the referendum in the first place, and campaigned for Remain. Imagine that the vote had gone exactly the same way: a 52:48 win for Leave.


It’s not fanciful in that scenario to imagine that we’d still be in the EU, following years of disagreement over what sort of exit should be pursued. David Cameron would have issued a notification under Article 50 (despite votes against by the opposition parties), and secured a withdrawal agreement very similar to Theresa May’s, which had been opposed by many in his own party. He might well have called an election at some point to strengthen his hand, only to find that he had weakened it. He might well have been toppled by a more avowedly hard-line Leaver from within his party, like Mr Johnson.


If all that had happened, and if either the Liberal Democrats or the Labour Party were now suggesting a policy of revoking Article 50, what would the reaction have been?


I doubt there would have been very many commentators claiming that such a policy was anti-democratic, unconstitutional, unprincipled, or extremist – as they are now. After all, these parties were clearly against the referendum in the first place, and campaigned against leaving. The referendum was legally advisory only, even though the Government committed to implementing the result - no one else did. The referendum and the implementation of the result would have been seen as “owned” by the Conservative Government (or both Governments, assuming the intervening general election). The fact that the Government had won the vote, but failed to implement the result after several years, would lay them open to the charge that they’d had their chance, and blown it – and it would now be entirely fair for other parties to propose cancelling the process entirely, following a new general election, which could give a new Government in a new Parliament a mandate to that effect.


What then is the difference between this scenario and the current situation that causes many people, including Remainers, to denounce the revoke position as anti-democratic, unconstitutional, unprincipled, or extremist?


I think the difference is that a referendum called and won by a Government, and opposed from the outset by opposition parties, would have been seen as having a much more limited mandate. It would have fitted more comfortably into our system of parliamentary democracy. If the Government had failed to implement the result by the time the next general election had occurred, the electorate could have chosen to give that party another chance to implement it, or chosen to give another party a chance to implement it in a different way, or voted for one of the opposition parties that would call a halt to it – and that would have seemed to be “business as usual” politically.


The 2016 Referendum, by contrast, is seen as having in some way transcended the normal constraints of parliamentary democracy. This is, I think, at least partly because the opposition parties agreed to the referendum being held, and initially agreed to abide by the result, even though it wasn’t legally binding. It isn’t considered as something wholly “owned” by the Conservatives.


The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats were mistaken in supporting the referendum, and MPs in those parties who agreed that the result must be implemented, and voted for the Article 50 process to be initiated in March 2017, were mistaken too. But we all make mistakes, and learning to admit and correct them is a part of growing up – and ought to be an accepted feature of a mature democracy. MPs and parties can change their minds, and ought to do so if they become aware of facts that warrant it. Parliament is able to undo laws made by a previous one. That is a fundamental feature of parliamentary sovereignty, and there is nothing undemocratic about this: indeed it could be said that a prohibition on changing course is in itself intrinsically undemocratic.


I don’t wish here to minimise the enormous political difficulties of revocation, or the extent of the resentment that it would cause. What I am saying is that there is nothing constitutionally improper about it. The political difficulties have come about because of the particular nature of this referendum, and the way the political parties handled it at the time.


For those who think that the 2016 referendum has transcended parliamentary democracy, and consider that, as a matter of constitutional principle, either the referendum must be implemented, come what may, or requires another referendum to reverse it, then I think they need to answer some further questions. Firstly, what constitutional principle is being relied on to override the long-established principle of parliamentary sovereignty? Secondly, why is the 1975 referendum not respected in the same way – or, if it is, what constitutional principle allowed that referendum to be overturned, and how should that principle apply regarding this referendum? Thirdly, what is to stop Governments using other referendums in the future as a means of significantly diminishing or even destroying parliamentary democracy, as has happened in authoritarian regimes in the past?


Perhaps a lot of people simply don’t care. The mood of ugliness that has developed recently, which is being channelled by the Government - open contempt for the law, hints of violence, and appeals to the “will of the people” - signifies that parliamentary democracy is under threat, and sickening.


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 https://spinninghugo.wordpress.com/2019/08/12/cooper-letwin-ii-may-not-work/). 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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