Boris’ big bet

By Rahul Raju

November 25, 2019

The United Kingdom’s Conservative Party has a new election website homepage. In the background, a looped video plays showing Prime Minister Boris Johnson vigorously shaking hands and enthusiastically taking selfies with people of all ages, his hair characteristically unkempt. Above the video, in bold letters, Johnson’s battle cry – “Get Brexit Done. Unleash Britain’s Potential.”

Heading into the General Election on December 12, 2019, Johnson’s central goal is to position his Conservative Party as the only reliable agent capable of delivering Brexit for the British people. He proudly trumpets his Brexit deal, now backed by all 635 Conservative candidates running in constituencies across the country. This simple certainty is contrasted with Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition Labour Party, who have pledged to renegotiate the deal and then put it to a vote through a second referendum. If voters elect a Conservative majority, Johnson says, they will complete Brexit negotiations, including a future trade deal with the EU, by the end of 2020. Only then, he claims, can a truly independent Britain make a comeback.

Behind this rhetoric lies a careful political calculation. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 406 out of 650 constituencies in the UK voted to leave the EU, including a majority of both Conservative and Labour seats. Even accounting for changes in public opinion, a majority of constituencies around the country can safely considered to be pro-Brexit. Additionally, Johnson is seeking to eliminate competition from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which has sought to outflank the Prime Minister as the best choice for committed Brexiteers. With relentless focus on his Brexit deal, Johnson aims to assemble a winning coalition in key constituencies, especially in the northern regions of England and Wales. 

This Brexit narrative also serves as a distraction from widespread dissatisfaction regarding public services. Since 2010, successive Conservative governments have enacted austerity programs that have led to cuts in housing subsidies and welfare payments. Corbyn has capitalized on this dissatisfaction. In its election manifesto, Labour announced a massive increase in public spending on healthcare, social care, housing, and green energy,funding this £80 billion spending increase with corporate tax hikes. Labour also supports the renationalization of key industries including the railways, energy firms, and British Telecom broadband. While Conservatives have attacked these plans as reckless, they have now announced modest spending hikes of their own in recognition of their vulnerability. Plainly, the Conservative Party wants a Brexit election, however Labour sees an election fought on improved public services as a winning strategy.

So far, it appears that Johnson is winning.  A YouGov poll conducted on November 12th indicated that 42% of voters would vote Conservative – a 17% increase since Johnson became Prime Minister – while 28% said they would vote for Labour. Meanwhile, the Brexit Party vote share has collapsed to 4%, and Farage recently announced that his party would only compete in about half of the constituencies. However, Brexit remains a leading issue for voters, with 66% indicating that they consider it to be important. Notably, 74% of Leave voters say they will vote Conservative, while only 46% of Remain voters say they will cast a vote for Labour. Given the first-past-the-post voting system, the Conservative Party is poised to win a parliamentary majority.

This short-term electoral gain could potentially come with deep long-term losses. In aligning the Conservative Party so firmly with the Leave position, Johnson has risked alienating vital segments of the British population. Just over 70% of young voters supported Remain in the Brexit referendum with a majority now leaning strongly towards voting for Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Additionally, some Conservative constituencies in London and the south of England voted against Brexit, meaning Johnson may be left with just a handful of representatives in the capital. More importantly, however, good electoral math doesn’t always line up with positive political outcomes. The economic and social costs of Brexit, and the deepening divisions within the electorate, will affect generations to come.

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