July 26, 2019
Could Johnson succeed?
Yesterday was an important day in British politics. It shifted previous expectations that a Boris Johnson premiership would be short-lived. Perhaps the intruding event was the appointment of the feared and revered Leave-vote mastermind, Dominic Cummings. This appointment sends out the clearest signal that this is not a team to govern but a team to win an election, as Fraser Nelson put in his Telegraph column. We have been arguing for some time that an early election is not a threat for Johnson but a promise. He is ready. So are the LibDems. But Labour is not. The perfect scenario for Johnson.
We need to read Johnson’s categorical rejection of the Irish backstop and his do-or-die promise of October 31 as Brexit day in this context. Johnson is not negotiating right now. There is no point in the EU responding to him. Michel Barnier is right when he writes that the EU should do nothing, except wait and see.
Johnson’s strategy is to get back all the voters who deserted the Tories for the Brexit party. The more he pushes for a hard Brexit, the more voters he will get back. At the same time, he is shifting the Tories towards liberal cosmopolitan positions on social issues, for example on immigration.
The preference of his team is to deliver Brexit first, and then hold elections. At the same they are getting ready for early elections if need be. We don’t think that the current polling numbers give an accurate prediction of the likely political dynamics. If Johnson succeeds in uniting the Leave vote, the game is over. Remainers are split between Labour and LibDems nationwide, and between these and the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales.
Peter Foster offers an interesting variant of the above theme. His scenario is one in which parliament tries to prevent a no-deal Brexit by forcing an early election. The Johnson/Cummings team will campaign on a theme of betrayal, and win big. After the victory, Johnson goes back to the EU and starts negotiating in earnest. Only then will his position shift.
One of the bellwethers for a shift in UK politics is the sheer sense of panic among Guardian columnists. They all agree that Johnson is really bad news. But we noted Rafael Behr now predicting that Johnson will be in Number 10 for a very long time. And we thought that this, from Suzanne Moore, is truly remarkable:
"While everyone, most importantly the EU itself, says that Johnson cannot achieve what he wants to, it feels as if at last a decision has been made. Do not underestimate how appealing to the electorate that may be."
A potentially opposing force are the bloody rivalries within the pro-Brexit camp. Cummings is probably the smartest political operator in UK politics right now. But he is also divisive. He famously described David Davis as "thick as mince". His hobby is to invent expletives to describe the European Research Group crowd. Its deputy, Steve Baker, yesterday rejected a government job fearing that he would be sidelined. For now, the discontented sceptics have indeed been sidelined. We predict that party unity will hold until the elections. If Johnson wins and delivers Brexit, all is well. If not, then not.