The Boris Bounce: Missing or Delayed?

The Boris Bounce: Missing or Delayed?

August 2019 | Politics

Everyone thinks that a 2019 General Election is inevitable. Problem is that Britain's new prime minister just lost a safe seat in a by-election. What now?

Boris Johnson has been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for ten days, and already he has experienced his first political crisis. On Thursday, the Conservative party lost the Brecon & Radnorshire by-election to the Liberal Democrats, cutting the Government's majority to one seat. That could reduce further in September after Phillip Lee, one of his backbenchers, disclosed that he was thinking about defecting to the Lib Dems. Guto Bebb, another ardent Tory Remainer, is also on defection watch although he has announced that he will stand down at the next election. He may change his mind about that as Labour defector, Frank Field, did this week.

To be fair, the majority of one is a little misleading as that number excludes Charlie Elphicke, the suspended MP for Dover, who was charged with sexual assault last week. His date in the dock is probably months away as the suspended MP isn't due to appear before Magistrates until September, let alone stand trial. In the meantime, he can be relied upon to vote with the Government. Additionally, some of the 21 other independent MPs could be relied upon to support the Government in most no confidence votes short of a No Deal Brexit. Indeed, Lady Sylvia Hermon and John Woodcock supported the Government in February's No Confidence vote. Tory defectors Nick Boles and Anna Soubry also promised to back their former party unless the Government changed their Brexit policy to delivering No Deal.

Room for Manoeuvre?

This illustrates the fundamental problem facing Johnson. He was elected by the party membership to get Brexit sorted before 31st October 'come what may, deal or no deal'. However, he has even fewer ways of resolving the parliamentary deadlock than his predecessor. He has ruled out supporting the current deal unless the backstop is removed, while European leaders have ruled out further negotiations until the new Prime Minister accepts the backstop. The Conservative leadership are betting that the economic risk inherent in a No Deal Brexit will bring the EU to the negotiating table now there is a UK government willing to go through with it. That's a big bet, particularly given the EU think Parliament will block No Deal and that Johnson doesn't want it anyway. They may be right, but it's a big risk to take. Johnson will do what he thinks is best for his own position, and he may think that is delivering a No Deal Brexit regardless of the consequences.

At the moment, everything is on hold until September. MPs are on their holidays, leaving the Government clear to very publicly ramp up No Deal preparations. Attempts to block No Deal won't kick in until the autumn, by which time the Government could well have lost its majority. Even if it doesn't, there is a large enough anti-No Deal faction on the Tory benches to block No Deal. It will only take a handful of rebels. Instead, Johnson and his key advisors led by Dominic Cummings have openly floated the idea of proroguing Parliament in late October to prevent MPs from blocking Brexit. This has one major problem: the Government will need to pass legislation to manage the consequences of a No Deal Brexit. There is no way they will be able to do that in the current Parliament.

The Unpopular Option

The obvious alternative would be to call an election. The Conservatives elected Boris Johnson because they believed him to be the only person in their ranks capable of winning one. He is popular among some groups of Brexit supporting swing voters but is equally repellent to others, including many Tory-voting Remainers in the Home Counties. So far, the evidence backing his status as a vote winner is decidedly mixed. Losing a by-election during his supposed honeymoon period is hardly a great start. There has been a modest polling bounce, but even the best opinion polls only show the Conservatives polling in the low thirties. In normal times that would not be enough to win an election. The current Tory polling lead is more due to the extreme weakness of the Labour party under the electorally toxic leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. There are an unusually large chunk of voters who hate both major party leaders, and could not be relied upon to vote for either. The Lib Dems under their new leader, Jo Swinson, believe that they will be the primary beneficiaries of the unpopular Labour and Tory leadership. Polls aren't backing this position, but do not underestimate the deep hostility to Boris Johnson and his cabinet among moderate middle class Tory voters.

Few MPs on either side of the House of Commons want a General Election. Both major parties think they will lose but find the prospect of winning even more terrifying. Labour MPs don't want a Corbyn government, because it would cement the Left's grip on the party permanently, whilst Conservatives are worried that they would be forced to stand on a No Deal manifesto committing them to vote for a scenario they oppose. It is generally believed that the Government can only win an election if Nigel Farage's Brexit Party are removed from the picture, either by entering into a pact or by delivering Brexit. The theory is that if all Brexit Party voters voted Conservative, then the Government would be able to overcome a divided opposition and win a majority. This smacks of wishful thinking. For one thing, Farage has already selected candidates for many Tory target seats including some held by Brexiters.

At the last election, only two thirds of Farage's 2015 UKIP vote went to the Tories. The rest went back to the Labour party, even though they had a softer Brexit policy. There is little reason to expect any different this time. Even if it did, they would be balanced by large scale defections of remain voters from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats. Johnson's supporters believe that swapping southern Remain voters for northern Labour leave voters would win the Conservatives more seats than they'd lose, simply because there are more leave seats than remain seats. That's probably not true because not all Leave voters support No Deal. One third of Leave supporters oppose No Deal, and it was the defection of this group to the Liberal Democrats that won them the leave voting seat of Brecon & Radnorshire. Given the public hostility to all major parties, the most likely scenario is that an election would make no change to the current parliamentary arithmetic, returning yet another hung parliament and continued deadlock. Plus ca change.

Written by Alan Chatfield