August 01, 2019
Polls look good for Johnson, but raise difficult dilemmas
It is now becoming increasingly clear that Boris Johnson’s premiership constitutes the first big shift in British politics since the Brexit referendum. A few weeks ago the polls had four parties - Tories, Labour, LibDems, and Brexit Party - roughly at equal place. The latest YouGov poll has the Tories with an absolute majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons, on a vote share of 32% followed by Labour's 22%. What has shifted is that Johnson has deflated the Brexit Party. But be careful. The Brexit Party is a binary phenomenon. If Johnson delivers Brexit, Nigel Farage will disappear. If not, Johnson will. Johnson's current support is an upfront credit, based on the expectation that he will deliver Brexit.
We noted a tweeter thread by Christopher Hope (@ChristopherHope) from the Daily Telegraph this morning, who reflected on the rumoured budget date - the week starting October 7. He sees a good chance that the budget might fail - an event that would invariably trigger a general election. So, why risk a budget defeat three weeks before Brexit, he asks.
His answer is that Johnson wants to capitalise on his support, but without having to call elections himself. In the ensuing campaign, the Tories would fight on a Brexit delivery platform against a more confused Labour Party. Hope is wondering whether Cummings' plan is to collapse the government before Brexit on purpose.
We don’t think this plan is as clever as it sounds. If the government were to collapse before 31 October, elections would probably have to be held after October 31. We did the math on a September 4 confidence vote - and it only just works out to a possible election date of October 24. If an election is held after October 31, the government has two choices: ask for a mini-extension until after the election date, or deliver Brexit during the period when the parliament is dissolved - in the weeks before the election. Both strategies are risky.
In the first scenario, Johnson would face the electorate shortly after having been forced to extend Brexit again. He would not have delivered on the goal. And if he extends only until after the day after the election, he would have to campaign on the basis a no-deal Brexit.
In the second scenario, he could claim to have delivered Brexit, but would face the risk of an election occurring at the worst possible time in the chaotic time right after a no-deal Brexit. There may even be civil unrest during that period.
The political reality behind the polling numbers is that Johnson will need to deliver Brexit before the elections - something that may prove impossible. In that case, we would expect the polling numbers for the Tories and the Brexit Party go up and down like a yoyo.
So what alternatives does Johnson have? One is to continue to build up no-deal expectations in August, and then to announce a break-through in negotiations with the EU in September, secure a majority in the Parliament for a deal, and hold elections afterwards.
The other strategy is to go for no deal and deliver it by force - by using all legal methods to ensure that the deadline sticks.