With the Prime Minister now pleading for an Election he said he didn’t want, the Conservatvies are facing yet again what has become their perenial problem: Europe.
Could some sort of resolution finally emerge, however, under the motivational pressure of a 2019 General Election?
First things first, the Conservatives have to address the spectre of thir 2017 failure. Indeed, one big motivation within the party right now must be the concern that it could all happen again – and happen worse.
The Conservatives are not as high in the polls now as when Theresa May called her snap election. Labour are not as low either. Worse still, Theresa May appeared to be in full command when calling an election against a badly split Labour Party, whereas Boris Johnson appears to have been flustered into begging for one while still saying he doesn’t want one really – and a multi-party opposition seems very united right now.
“When all other tools for reclaiming control simply run out – all that is left is a General Election. But desperation is not the same as despair.”
Further to all of that there is the risk inherrant in hundreds of thousands of Labour activists by-passing the press by knocking on every neighbours’ door. Likewise, a remain-specific alliance has now proved itself in Brecon and Radnorshire. There is also a much revived Brexit Party in place of the largely defunct UKIP of 2017.
So the motives for calling an election – and the motives at play during such an election – have to be pretty powerful for the Tories right now.
Desperation is a Factor
While there is cause for Tory optimism about a General Election, we have to note that desperation plays its part. The UK has a Prime Minister who has lost his majority in spectacular fashion, has as yet made no reportable progress on brexit, and is being outplayed by his opponents on “no deal” as they set about passing legslation while he knows he doesn’t have the numbers to do likewise.
In such a situation – when all other tools for reclaiming control simply run out – all that is left is a General Election.
“Exact election timing rarely matters as much as people imagine. This election might be a little different though, because of two ticking clocks.”
But desperation is not the same as despair. The Government has been announcing spending splurges for weeks already – a fairly common pre-election practice to try to boost its prospects. That is especially important up against a Labour Party that campaigned well on non-brexit issues in 2017. It is also ahead in polls right now, albeit with the caveat that it is not presently up by as big a margin or with as big a support as it might have hoped with a new leader (it has yet to reach 40%, for example).
So although desperation may have caused the timing to move forward, that does not mean it is really the dominant motivation once an election is underway.
Two ticking clocks
The exact timing of an election is often over thought. An intense campaign, long-standing strategies, and established public perceptions mean a week here and there usually doesn’t matter as much as people imagine. This election might be a little different though, because of two ticking clocks.
The first ticking clock – one that would motivate towards an election sooner rather than later – is the new leader “bounce”. John Major, Gordon Brown, Theresa May – they all rose in polls upon becoming new PMs and they all saw those leads eventually subside for different reasons. The “bounce” for Johnson has not been particularly dramatic (nothing like Theresa May experienced) but there has been one and it is an advantage he will want to capitalise on by not waiting too long.
“An election changes nothing between the DUP and Conservatvies – because of geography.”
The Second ticking clock – one that is more important to voters – is the brexit deadline. Until last week this clock was a strong motivation not to rush things. By getting brexit over the line, Boris Johnson could have taken a celebratory campaign to a large number of leave voters having delivered on his promise. That would likely have nulified the Brexit Party and moved their votes into his column. It would also have come – one presumes – too soon for long term consequences to really impact on less certain voters even if the final brexit was “no deal” brexit.
That second clock switched motivation last week as the new “rebel alliance” took control of politics and therefore brexit.
The challenge for Johnson now is to try to force an election before the deadline so he won’t go to the polls having “failed” like those before him. That failure would bolster his opponents and demoralise his base. That even led to talk he might game the system so that the election itself would deliver “no deal”, though that was always unlikely to get past his opponents.
So What About Brexit Coalitions?
The Conservatives are already in something of a brexit coalition with the DUP. The DUP might be small but until this week they were enough to give the Prime Minister a wafer thin majority.
“It would be hard to invent a worse threat to Boris Johnson’s electoral appeal than Nigel Farage.”
Unlike the large group of “rebel alliance” parties, an election changes nothing between the DUP and Conservatvies. They are broadly aligned on brexit and while they might have very different views on some things, they exist in entirely different geographic regions so have no cross-over to cause tensions or require tactical planning.
Aside from some small co-ordination of messaging there’s just nothing much for the DUP or Conservatives to offer eachother.
The Brexit Party Question
The Brexit Party is right wing, appeals strongly to older voters, stands in seats across the UK, and is hardline on brexit – something the Tories also are, at least in relation Labour.
So it would be hard to invent a worse threat to Boris Johnson’s electoral appeal than Nigel Farage.
But with so much in common could they not become allies?
The difficulty with an alliance here is that it isn’t clear these two parties want to be friends. While a rebel alliance formed in the face of the common threat (“no deal” brexit), the Conservatives looking at polls today could reasonably expect to win an election without Nigel Farage’s help. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage has built his status on a popular message of absolutism that would be damaged if he then ceded to another party’s equivocations.
“It is almost analogous to a mugger stealing your wallet but offering to buy you a pint if you dance for it.”
The Conservative motivation was almost certainly to get brexit over the line so that the Brexit Party would die off. That worked in 2017 when UKIP all but vanished because the referendum had been won, but that plan now looks implausible. With an election likely to happen only after brexit is delayed again, the prospect of the Brexit Party dying is very weak.
That puts a pact back on the table, but as said elsewhere, pacts are very rare for a reason.
So No “No Deal Pact” Then?
Since Johnson and Farage offer almost the exact same things to almost the exact same target voters, the idea of a pact should be plausible. The difficulty now is that the Brexit Party has already made that hard for the Conservatives.
Farages’ popular absolutism saw him offer to help the Tories if the Tories did what he told them. What he told them to do was to make “no deal” the aim for brexit, not just a possible outcome.
“Five Thousands voters can be worth a lot less than thirty voters in a UK General Election.”
This is a gauling position to be in for a grand old party like the Conservatives. It is almost analogous to a mugger (the Brexit Party) stealing your wallet (voters) but offering to buy you a pint if you dance for it (go for “no deal”).
Fortunately for the Conservatives – and stretching the analogy even further – they still have hold of their gold card.
Present polling suggests the Conservatives can win an election regardless. Polling can change and there are big risks ahead but ultimately they can feel motivated by the prospect of winning still – especially with the advantages that come from being a big party in a First Past The Post England.
But will they?
Elections are scary things for politicians and fear is a great motivator. Up against the prospect of “failing” to meet the deadline, the Conservatives might feel the election is less winnable than they hoped and might seek to hedge their bets with some sort of Brexit Party pact.
Trouble is, five thousands voters can be worth a lot less than thirty voters at a UK General Election.
If a pact with the Brexit Party delivers 5,000 hardline leave votes in Sunderland Central, that would be worthless to the Conservatives. Sunderland would still have a Labour MP. On the flipside, if rejecting Farage’s harder line wins the Conservatives just thirty moderate voters in remain-voting Kensington, that’s an extra Tory MP elected to the Commons.
When the maths are done, one outcome might be something of a secret pact. Johnson might try to promise the Brexit Party he’ll force through “no deal” if they stand down some candidates – while asking for permission to lie to the public by saying there will be a deal.
The trouble with that is trust. Would a savvy Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party really trust Boris Johnson enough to give up much of their own electoral strength on the hope that he’s being honest about who he is lying to?