Conservatives can look forward to a Brexit-dominated general election with considerable optimism – whatever parliament decides to do about Boris Johnson’s deal with the EU, writes Murdo Fraser.
There was a fair amount of humble pie being consumed last week amongst the political commentariat. Those who had dismissed Boris Johnson as a lightweight Prime Minister, lazy and unfocussed, suddenly had to revisit their opinions when he delivered a deal with the EU27 on Brexit.
The Prime Minister achieved what few people thought was possible, and something that was beyond the reach of his predecessor Theresa May, a departure deal from the EU that involved the dropping of the troublesome Northern Irish backstop, which had been a barrier to an agreement achieving a parliamentary majority in Westminster.
Not only have the EU27 agreed to amend the original deal, despite having said previously that it was the only one on offer, but it is just possible that the House of Commons might vote for the new proposition.
This deal gives certainty to businesses across the UK, who have been desperate to avoid a no-deal scenario. Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Business, said: “Many small businesses will be relieved that there now appears to be a credible pathway towards securing a deal that avoids a chaotic ‘no-deal’ on 31 October, and guarantees a transition period.” There were similar welcomes from the CBI and other industry groups, both in Scotland and across the rest of Britain.
The Prime Minister’s success in delivering a Brexit deal seemed to be in tune with the public mood. A “super-poll” by ComRes, published last Wednesday, showed that 54 per cent of the British public supported the UK abiding by the 2016 referendum result and leaving the EU, regardless of the way they voted in the 2016 referendum. It also revealed that the majority outcome was now for the UK to leave the EU, with 50 per cent having that opinion as opposed to 42 per cent wanting to remain. When the “don’t knows” were excluded, Leave beat Remain by 54 to 46 per cent.
Brexit opponents wrong-footed
The breakdown of the poll for Scotland was fascinating, showing that there has been some movement from the result here in 2016 which was 62 per cent for Remain. Now support for Remain in Scotland has fallen to 58 per cent, with 42 per cent supporting Leave. When the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon claims that an “overwhelming majority” of Scottish people oppose leaving the EU, perhaps she needs to bear these figures in mind. Perhaps even more significantly, 48 per cent of Scottish voters say the EU referendum result should be respected with 52 per cent opposed (when “don’t knows” are excluded), an outcome within the margin of error of showing an equal split.
What these polling figures reveal is a growing mood amongst the public just to get Brexit done, to put this behind us, and move on to focussing on the issues that really matter to people. And there will be increasingly little sympathy for those politicians who seek to frustrate a Brexit deal which allows us to do just that.
Political opponents were certainly wrong-footed by Boris Johnson’s success in Europe last week. Labour now seem committed to a second referendum, when there is dwindling public support for going down this route. The Liberal Democrats, in defiance of their party’s name, now want to overturn the 2016 referendum result altogether and simply go back to where we were before.
As for the SNP, for weeks they have been telling us that there was no prospect of a deal. Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament on 5 September that there were no meaningful negotiations going on, and that efforts to strike a deal were just a “sham”. These claims were repeated by Ian Blackford in the House of Commons, whilst Michael Russell at Holyrood repeated over and over that the UK Government was only interested in a no-deal Brexit. They have all been proved wrong.
Johnson looks like a winner
Appearing before the Scottish Parliament’s Finance and Constitution Committee on Monday, the Prime Minister’s effective deputy, Michael Gove, reminded us that what the SNP have always really wanted is a no-deal Brexit, believing that this will drive up support for independence. With his diplomatic success last week, Boris Johnson has shot their fox. But that will not stop SNP MPs in the House of Commons doing all they can to frustrate the progress of the withdrawal legislation.
The UK Government still has the challenge of getting the necessary Bill through both Houses of Parliament in a very short space of time. But the political outlook is now much more encouraging. If, in defiance of public opinion, MPs block the legislation, and we remain in the EU after 31 October, the case for a General Election is unanswerable.
In such an election, the Prime Minister would go to the country saying that he had agreed a Brexit deal with the EU, one that removed the Northern Irish backstop and delivered on the outcome of the 2016 referendum, and was thwarted by opposition MPs playing political games for their own partisan interests. Who would bet against a Conservative majority as the outcome from such a contest?
Alternatively, Parliament passes the Withdrawal Bill, we leave the EU at the end of October or shortly thereafter and enter a transition period, and in any subsequent election, Boris Johnson can present himself to the electorate as the leader who delivered what so many thought was impossible. Either way, he looks like a winner.
And I do not believe that the outcome in Scotland will be so different from that elsewhere in the UK. The SNP’s tactics in relation to Brexit have been misjudged from the very start, motivated by their overwhelming desire to hold a second independence referendum. But with the Prime Minister having delivered Brexit in the context of growing Scottish support for respecting the outcome of the 2016 referendum, the SNP pitch in a forthcoming election to overturn Brexit and hold indyref2 is one which will meet with substantial public resistance. Scottish Conservatives will go into that campaign with much more confidence than anyone thought possible just one week ago.