UK politics: Boris Johnson’s Brexit election gamble
Boris Johnson’s winter gamble to end Britain’s Brexit stasis has sent a chill through many MPs in his Conservative party.
“It’s like brewing,” says one grim Tory MP preparing for Britain’s first December election in almost 100 years. “You chuck in lots of ingredients but you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. It could blow up in your face.”
Mr Johnson’s own team admit they have no idea how Britain’s most momentous election in a generation will turn out, but there is widespread agreement that the outcome will profoundly shape the future of the country, its economy, its place in the world, even the survival of the United Kingdom.
The prime minister, in office for a little over three months, is staking everything on a December 12 election which will take place against the backdrop of a bitterly divided country, extreme voter volatility and a traditional two-party system being torn apart by Brexit.
“Of course it’s a gamble,” admits one ally of Mr Johnson — especially after Nigel Farage’s threat on Friday to run Brexit party candidates across the country to compete against the Conservatives and the prime minister’s renegotiated deal with the EU.
For Mr Johnson, there is only one route to a clear victory: knocking a big hole in the “red wall” of Labour seats in working-class areas of the Midlands, Wales and the North of England.
That fight will be particularly intense in the West Midlands, the industrial conurbation centred on Birmingham: of the 59 constituencies in the region, all the seats are held by either Labour or the Conservatives. If Mr Johnson could knock down this part of the red wall, other seats would be sure to follow.
As campaigning kicks off, there are some positive signs for Mr Johnson in Wolverhampton South West, a battleground seat which Labour won in 2017 with a majority of just over 2,000.
Steve Perry, a bouncer who voted Leave in 2016, reflects how political loyalties in the city with one of one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and pockets of deprivation but where politics has been upended by the arguments over Brexit.
“I usually vote Labour,” says Mr Perry. “But [Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t got a clue. He is stuck in the 1970s. I wouldn’t vote Conservative but Boris has done what he said he would. He’s going for an election to unblock it.”
One of the Conservatives’ bets is that Mr Corbyn, for all his campaigning energy, will turn out to be an electoral liability for many Labour MPs on the stump. “I wouldn’t say they like Boris, but people here prefer him to Corbyn,” says Mr Perry.
Given that 40 per cent of people said they would switch their vote from how they voted in 2017, according to a Populus survey, it is easy to see why this is the most complex election in years.
Will Tanner, a former adviser to ex-prime minister Theresa May and director of Onward, a Tory pressure group, admits the huge risks in calling an election in such a fluid environment. “Nobody knows what’s going on in the electorate,” he says. “Voter volatility is higher than it has been in decades.”
Mr Johnson enters the election with a double-digit poll lead over Labour, but the mountain he has to climb remains daunting. At the previous election in 2017, Mrs May won 318 seats — short of the 326 needed for a majority — despite winning 42 per cent of the vote and making some advances into Labour’s northern heartlands.
At this election pollsters predict the Tories will lose many — perhaps most — of the 13 seats they hold in Scotland against a resurgent Scottish National party, an anti-Brexit party which hopes to use the poll as a springboard to push for another independence referendum.
Meanwhile, the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats are threatening to seize seats from Mr Johnson, especially in prosperous Remain-voting areas in London and the south. Jo Swinson, the party’s new leader, claims she could be “Britain’s next prime minister”, but even if she takes 40-50 seats it could deprive the Tories of a majority.
“I think we’ll lose 20 and gain 60,” says veteran Tory MP Gary Streeter.
Much of the Labour heartland that the Conservatives are targeting is traditionally hostile territory for the party. “For many people the Tories remain the people who closed down the north and decimated our industry,” says Anthony Wells, director of political research at pollsters YouGov.
But this is also Leave-voting country and Mr Johnson believes he can make big advances into Mr Corbyn’s core support, exploiting Labour’s convoluted position on Brexit — the party wants a second referendum but will not say yet whether it would back Leave or Remain — and an antipathy towards the Labour leader among traditional left voters.
Mr Johnson needs to persuade former Labour voters that he will deliver Brexit and then start helping the “left behind” towns of England, just as Donald Trump wooed “forgotten” America. Mr Johnson hopes to frame the contest as “people versus parliament”, with him on the side of the people.
Mr Tanner argues that Mr Johnson can combine a hard Brexit message with commitments to help struggling towns and tackle the social care crisis, but “it requires political flexibility”.
Mr Johnson’s ability to convince swing voters that he is tacking to the political centre has been undermined by his decision to purge many moderate Tory MPs because of their criticism of the political tactics he has adopted. Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson and one of 21 Tories cast into exile by Mr Johnson, claimed the party was adopting a “hard right” Conservatism and was becoming a “Brexit sect”.
At the same time, he could face a challenge from Mr Farage’s Brexit party if it goes ahead, as threatened on Friday, to field candidates everywhere. Next door to Wolverhampton South West is another marginal seat, Walsall North, but in this case won narrowly by the Tories. If support for the Brexit party were to divide the Leave vote, it could open the way to Labour taking the seat.
“The big imponderable in this election is going to be the Brexit party
. . . and whether they will do a pact [with the Conservatives or] whether they will split the vote,” says Don Gwinnett, a member of the leftwing campaign group Momentum and Labour activist in the region.
Large numbers of voters in the area are undecided — and full of reservations about both Conservative and Labour leaders. Blossom Vassel, a longtime resident of the city, says: “There are issues around Boris Johnson’s language and demeanour. On the other hand, there’s a belief that Corbyn would not be a good prime minister.”
“The people versus parliament — people don’t buy that here — but Boris is trying his best,” says Neil, who sells baked potatoes from a van in Wolverhampton’s city centre, and who was more upbeat about the prime minister.
Kindan Birhah, who works for Wolverhampton city council, reflected the agonies over Brexit: “If we leave it will take a long time to regain normality. If we stay the same is true because the whole country is in disarray.”
The Labour party’s attempts to portray Mr Johnson as Mr Trump’s poodle, willing to sell Britain short in a post- Brexit US trade deal, appears to be resonating in the West Midlands. Mr Trump’s intervention in the election this week — he said on Mr Farage’s radio show that a Corbyn victory would be “so bad for your country”, while also criticising Mr Johnson’s Brexit withdrawal deal — is only likely to help Labour.
Diana, a retired caterer living in Wolverhampton council housing who has voted Tory in the past, says she plans to vote Labour, partly because the local Labour MP has helped her personally, and partly because she voted to remain in the EU. “Now we’ll have to buy our medical supplies in America and we’ll be a darn sight worse off,” she says.
This election is, in different ways, asking voters whether they feel more comfortable with Europe or the US. She says Mr Johnson is “very close to Trump, who is dangerous”.
Ian Humphries, an artist, also expresses concern about a US trade deal: “We’ll be at the mercy of bleached food and synthetic strawberries.”
Stuart Anderson, a former soldier who runs a personal security company, is the Conservative candidate for Wolverhampton South West. He moved to the city after being selected last year and has been campaigning ever since, engaging with local issues as much as trumpeting the Brexit cause, he says.
He was flanked by councillors, among them Hindu, Muslim and Sikh allies, who say Labour could no longer depend on the Asian community in the area as a vote bank. They blame the Labour-controlled council for misgovernance, and failing over 50 years to regenerate the city. Labour activists in turn blame 10 years of Tory cuts to council budgets.
“When you look around the country, we are in the most volatile situation we have been in. Wolverhampton amplifies that,” says Mr Anderson.
Mr Johnson hopes December 12 will bring closure to the first stage of Brexit, raising spirits ahead of Christmas. But in such a complex electoral situation, many MPs fear the poll could just lead to another hung parliament, more deadlock and more Brexit paralysis.
“It would be a crisis to have a hung parliament,” says Ken Clarke, retiring from the Commons after 49 years as a Conservative MP. “But I think that’s the most likely outcome.”