History tells us a Government cannot expect an election to be contested only on the issues it wants, writes Brian Monteith
This General Election is Boris Johnson’s to lose. From the moment he convinced the House of Commons to agree to its dissolution it always was. Yet he might just have set himself up for a fall, not because of anything he’s done, but more because of what he did not do.
The Prime Minister is well ahead in the polls; he is undoubtedly a better campaigner than Theresa May ever was; the economy continues to do relatively well despite the effects of flat line growth in the European Union and a slow-down in China. The public finances continue to improve and, despite the challenges being faced by high street retailers, consumption remains buoyant as the slack is being taken up by online sales. With employment at its highest on record we are better off than we were in 2017, 2015 or 2010 when the last three elections were held. If it is the economy that matters then Johnson should romp home.
His main opponents also happen to be the most extreme cabal the Labour Party has ever offered. Labour continues to reveal a rich seam of anti-Semitism that has caused many of its own MPs and supporters to leave and there rarely appears to be a terrorist cause or the interests of a foreign power that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell do not embrace. How can Johnson lose against that lot?
The lesson of British history is that a Government cannot simply call a General Election and expect it to be contested only on the issues it wishes to focus on, in this case Boris Johnson “getting Brexit done”. Ted Heath sough to win a mandate to tackle the threat of union power and lost, chiefly because the skilful Harold Wilson was able to turn the debate on to the troubled economy and convince the electorate the Tories were to blame. A hung parliament followed and Wilson won the subsequent election held a few months later.
We can already see the media drifting away from Brexit as the core issue as Labour floats aspects of its policy offering and this will only accelerate next week when the launch of party manifestoes reaches fever pitch. It’s not just the public that are suffering Brexit fatigue and want to move on, I fully expect the media to exhaust every opportunity to tear apart any policy suggestions over the coming weeks as some much needed respite, before Brexit negotiations begin again after the general election – as they must.
The reason for Johnson’s difficulty is obvious – he had the chance to create with the Brexit Party (even informally) an unstoppable Leave Alliance that would have helped to keep the Brexit issue at the heart of the general election. Given the continued support for honouring the referendum result and the clear majority against holding a second referendum such an alliance could have delivered him a large working majority. Instead he has made what I believe to be a serious strategic campaign error – putting a hoped for extinction of the Brexit Party ahead of defeating Corbyn.
The bullying phone calls by Tory MPs to Brexit Party candidates, the offer of a Brexit negotiating role to Ann Widdecombe and other inducements, even from Johnson’s Chief of Staff – which Downing Street has not been able to categorically deny, show how desperate the Tory high command was last week – and how broken our politics is.
There are those that say the Brexit Party has become too ambitious in looking to fight hundreds of parliamentary seats and should only have focused on say 20 or 30 – but this is either disingenuous mischief or naïvety. To run a national campaign requires parties to fight a large number of seats as the numbers contested establish legal campaign funding limits and access rights to party political broadcasts. By fighting only thirty seats broadcasters can and will ignore a campaign – while the legal campaign budget cap (that takes a account of spending twelve months prior to the election date) would mean the Brexit Party having to stop all political activity now. The Brexit Party would thus have been snuffed out.
Having intentionally refused to positively embrace the Brexit cause in a way that would keep it centre stage the Conservative campaign now faces a war on many fronts being defined by flags and free stuff. The Liberal Democrats are a carrying the EU flag into key remain-voting Conservative held constituencies and even without the Brexit Party taking Tory votes look likely to win a few. The SNP can’t campaign on their appalling record in education, health and the public finances but they can wave Saltire flags and try to switch the blame for the Scottish Government’s poor decisions to Westminster.
Labour meantime does not want to speak about its shambolic Brexit policy, instead it will announce all sorts of free stuff, much of it novel (so as to soak up media time and attention) – most of it promised by 2030 – two more general elections away.
Johnson needs to find ways of bringing the debate back to the issue of democracy and the guaranteed betrayal of the referendum outcome if Labour or a Lab-Lib Dem coalition is to be avoided. He needs to keep Brexit central but this allows parties to remind the electorate of the flaws in the departure treaty he renegotiated and how the deal still has to be negotiated over the next year (at least).
The natural reaction of the Conservatives and corporate UK will be to rev-up another project fear campaign over the threats posed by Corbyn, but why should this work when it failed in the 2014 and 2016 referendums and did not halt Corbyn’s advance in 2017?
Instead I suggest Labour’s fantasy plans are more likely to be sunk by humour and ridicule backed up by evidence-based examples of where central planning has failed before (such as Australia’s shambolic state-delivered free full-fibre broadband). The Labour Party also needs to be shamed over its willingness to choose the wrong priorities, being asked how spending tens of billions on taking ownership of private industries (which adds up to hundreds of billions in total) when there are genuine problems about poverty and housing that are deemed less important.
This general election remains Boris Johnson’s to lose, such a pity he chose not to take up Nigel Farage’s magnanimous offer.
Brian Monteith MEP is Chief Whip of the Brexit Party in the European Parliament