Boris gets an election

At the fourth time of asking, Britain’s House of Commons granted PM Boris Johnson’s wish for an early election.  If the House of Lords agrees, it should take place on Thursday 12 December.

Why couldn’t his opponents have hung on a bit longer, given their majority in the lower chamber? Having by a supreme effort denied Johnson ratification of his Brexit deal by 31 October and got the EU to extend the Brexit deadline to 31 January, it’s hard to see what credible strategy they could agree on.  Voting the deal down would have begged the question (from the EU and the voters): what next?  So they stopped dodging the unavoidable.

First to break ranks were the two parties with clear anti-Brexit messages – the Scottish Nationalists and the Liberal Democrats.  They could see that an election before the UK had actually left the EU could help rally their bases. Conversely, Labour MPs were more hesitant because Brexit still cleaves their party.

Boris has the political momentum of having negotiated a Brexit deal and a double-digit polling lead.  But it is shaping as a particularly unpredictable election, because there are conflicting narratives competing for attention and it’s hard to tell which will matter most for different types of voter.

The first is Brexit: can you live with Boris’s compromise deal or do you want something else? Johnson’s Conservatives probably have the edge in this debate, not least because his deal looks like the most stable option in a shaky environment.

The second is the more conventional economic-and-social vision of society debate. Boris has been developing a narrative of a more effective and supportive state – more police, better healthcare  – aimed particularly at Brexit-supporting Labour party voters outside London. This might take a form similar to former Australian PM John Howard’s championing of “the battlers”. 

But he can expect a ferocious attack from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – who looks fired up by the chance to make the case for radical socialist transformation – and is revving up his slogan of “the many, not the few”.

Other factors making prediction difficult are the numbers of serious parties competing for votes; low levels of party loyalty; and the possibility of significant tactical voting.  The nightmare for Conservative party strategists is that they fail to win enough new votes from the Brexit party and Brexit-supporting Labour voters, while getting squeezed by tactical voting by Labour and Liberal-Democrat supporters in the Europe-leaning parts of the country. 

So while the Conservatives are odds-on favourites (10/11 since you ask), don’t rule out the possibility of a tiny majority or a minority administration, and further turmoil. Even if the next parliament does legislate for Boris’s deal, he will then need its support for the trade-and-economic relationship negotiations.

All that said, there a number of markers that this might be a transformational election. 

There is the fundamental choice between Britain setting its own social and economic course, versus being carried along with the Brussels consensus.  That debate has shaken up established political loyalties. Don’t assume that the deal has settled this question (read about EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s binary view of the future).

Moreover, the difference in visions is unusually stark, with Jeremy Corbyn making the case for a big increase in the powers and resources commanded by the state to change lives. And don’t forget the culture war issues that played out in the US and Australian elections.

Keep watching.

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