Brexit is now entirely hostage to electoral calculations


The doorsteps of December look set to be darkened by election campaigners. The Brexit debate has crystallised into this single and simple question. Is the UK election coming before or after Brexit? Look what Santa’s brought you, children.

The move by the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National party to force an early election means prime minister Boris Johnson now has the votes for a poll without Labour support. Second referendum advocates seem to be admitting defeat and now see an election as the only hope of stopping Brexit.

They are right. There is a small but clear majority in the House of Commons for leaving. Committed Remainers could welcome the gambit, although other voters may be astonished that just as the government is making progress on a deal, it should give up the fight just because the prime minister is upset at breaching his pledge to deliver Brexit by October 31.

A contest may have been rejected on Monday, but it is likely to be backed later this week. The curious aspect of this is that neither the Tory government nor the Labour opposition really want an election before Brexit. That the prime minister would rather secure his deal is obvious; that Labour might resist the election which stops him is less understandable.

The fact that Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has underlines the fundamental and miserable reality that Brexit is now entirely hostage to each party’s calculations of electoral advantage. It would be naive to imagine that any party is indifferent to its electoral fortunes, but the degrees of enthusiasm for a pre-Brexit poll tell us a great deal.

Labour is frightened of a contest. Its only strategy has been Micawberite delay, though it may now be shamed into backing an election by the actions of other parties. For the Lib Dems and the SNP, however, the contest cannot come soon enough. The Lib Dems have built their revival on being the party of Remain. They want a contest that is about stopping Brexit.

The SNP too expects significant gains, but also wants the poll before January when former leader Alex Salmond is due to go on trial over allegations of sexual assault, attempted rape and other offences. Procedural questions over the way the allegations were handled may also damage Nicola Sturgeon, the current first minister.

For Mr Johnson, the calculation is more nuanced. His first choice is still to secure his deal before going to the polls. But in his hierarchy of options, the second-best bet is a rapid pre-Brexit election. The worst option is more delay, defeats and cries of “betrayal” from Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.

Even so it seems a huge gamble to risk both Brexit and his premiership on a highly uncertain election, having failed to meet his main promise and before his legislation has actually been defeated. That he is ready to run this risk says much about both his fear of Mr Farage and his contempt for Mr Corbyn.

It is a damning testament to the state of the official opposition party that after three years of Tory failure, it is Labour MPs who most fear an election. Loudly, Labour proclaimed its desire for a contest, while finding reasons why now is not the right time for a vote until the inevitablilty of a contest leaves it unable to back off any longer. The party languishes in the mid twenties in the polls and the bulk of its MPs do not want an election. Many dream of changing their leader, though it is not easy to see the mechanism for forcing this.

Mr Corbyn and his closest allies are comfortable with Brexit; party members and most MPs are hostile. The Labour leader is more gung-ho for a poll although he would probably prefer a post-Brexit election that lets him focus the campaign on issues of public spending, the environment and social justice. But he cannot be seen to have played midwife to Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal. Labour’s dilemma is not helped by its Janus-faced policy of persisting with Brexit while promising a referendum on any deal.

The party will gain some ground in the campaign. Its policies are well targeted at key voting groups and Labour has been underestimated before. But Mr Corbyn looks past his best, the Lib Dems are a major threat in a pre-Brexit poll and Mr Johnson is a more formidable foe than his predecessor.

It may be hubris, but Mr Corbyn’s shortcomings are now Mr Johnson’s main cause for hope. If, as now looks likely, MPs back a pre-Brexit December election, he serves as an opponent of choice in a poll where victory allows the Tories to deliver Brexit.

This may be as close as the UK gets to a “people’s vote”. Elections are imperfect determinants of single issues, but this is the only vote the people are likely to be offered.

If MPs have not backed an election by the end of the week then they will probably have backed Brexit by the end of the year.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com



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