As expectations of a general election before Christmas grow, informal alliances are taking shape, writes Brian Monteith
I am asked regularly what I expect will happen next in the Brexit saga, to which I say: “No one knows – not the Prime Minister, not the opposition leaders, not the Speaker, nor Juncker, Tusk or Verhofstadt”. Honestly, no one has a Scooby.
The Prime Minister’s chief strategist and adviser, Dominic Cummings, may think he knows; but unless he is playing a triple bluff so we believe Boris Johnson is bluffing by saying he can take the UK out of the EU on 31 October when instead he must comply with the Benn Act by writing for an extension to stay in, but in fact does have a means to escape – then Cummings is as flawed and ignorant as any of us.
There are many solutions being touted for the Prime Minister to defy the Benn Act – an Act of Parliament that was born from Her Majesty’s Opposition and other fellow travellers plotting with the EU over the summer – but each Machiavellian concoction appears to have its own antidote suggesting none of them would stick. What does appear to be highly likely is that we shall have a general election before Christmas. The reasons for this are threefold.
If Johnson manages somehow to take the UK out of the EU, with or without a deal, then the Remain opposition shall have to concede defeat and in so doing recognise that a government with a parliamentary majority is needed if we are not to descend into further political and constitutional chaos. If politicians believe their own rhetoric about putting right those things that are wrong in British society, they must agree to the people choosing a new government.
If Johnson fails to deliver on his promise of meeting the extension deadline, it is clear the opposition parties believe that outcome will weaken his political credibility so much they can risk a general election in the expectation they will win.
Or, if before the impending Brexit departure is resolved, Johnson is removed from office and the misnomer that is a “government of national unity” becomes real, it will be too unstable to live long and must lead to a general election. For one thing, any coalition of competing and disunited views will be built upon sand, but also the SNP cannot afford to allow a general election to take place next year when the trial of former first minister Alex Salmond will begin.
If Salmond is found guilty it will be a disaster for SNP morale and must raise many questions about the trustworthiness of those politicians who were close to him, not just about what they might have known but also what they chose not to say if they did know of any criminal behaviour. If, as equally remains possible, Salmond is found innocent, the role of the current First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, will be brought under scrutiny, not least by those allies of Salmond who will undoubtedly feel she has not helped his case. For Sturgeon there is also the complication of how she acted and what she may say in evidence, if she is called to do so, and if there has been any attempt to protect Salmond how this will play with her reputation among the feminist sisterhood she so often plays up to.
So, for a variety of reasons (and there are others I might have listed) a general election is highly likely – probably in mid-November or even as late as early December.
Party campaign strategists will not be keen on a general election being later than November if only because the shortening daylight hours and winter weather makes canvassing and open campaigning much harder. With the growth of unlisted mobile phones over listed landlines also making telephone canvassing harder, the compilation of data that drives modern electioneering would need to rely far more on the air-war of social media and advertising. That is why all parties are already in campaign mode, knocking on doors and seeking to capture opinions before the long nights draw in.
Whenever it comes, the impending general election is likely to be of momentous importance. I cannot think of an election campaign when the participants have not tried to convince us it would be the most historic in our lifetimes – either because one leader had to be defeated (eg Thatcher against Callaghan or Blair against Major) or what gains had been made could not afford be lost (eg Thatcher against Kinnock or Blair against Hague).
This election will be different, however, because it will offer the opportunity of a realignment in British politics that rarely takes place but is already visible if you look hard enough. In Beaconsfield the Liberal Democrats, the antithesis of democratic mandates, have agreed not to put forward a candidate so the rebel Tory Dominic Grieve may yet hold his seat against an official Conservative Party challenger. The pressure is now mounting for Labour to do the same and withdraw too. The beginnings of a Remain alliance is taking flesh. Such informal developments may begin to take place in other seats where Tory Remain rebels choose to stand, such as in Broxtowe, where Anna Soubry defends a slim majority, or Sarah Wollaston in Totnes or Heidi Allen in South Cambridgeshire.
This development coincides with the Conservative Party swinging towards becoming the Brexit Party Lite by intentionally casting off many of its more devout Europhiles – and the Brexit Party itself knocking on the door of Labour constituencies that voted leave but have unreconstructed Remain MPs. Without any formal agreement with the Conservatives, the Brexit Party could win a number of Labour seats such as Thurrock, Hartlepool, Redcar, Sedgefield, Dudley, Ashfield and even Merthyr Tydfil, where it all began for Labour. With the mutually beneficial leg-up of an informal Leave alliance in selected seats the possibility of Labour and Tory Remainers being denied election becomes real.
Were this bridgehead towards party political realignment along the question of Leave or Remain to be achieved, it could be expanded at the subsequent election. Then Labour would implode, allowing the Brexit Party and Lib Dems to feast on its carcass.
What appears certain is that, whether Brexit is achieved by Halloween or not, the issue of the UK’s membership with the EU is going to matter for many years yet.
•Brian Monteith MEP is chief whip of the Brexit Party in the European Parliament