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September 27, 2019

Watch out for the shifting politics of Brexit

In today’s briefing we bring you two separate Brexit stories, one on the shifting politics of Brexit, and on fears of another tactical ruse by Johnson. The short answer is that people overestimate the likelihood of latter, and underestimate the former. Especially in Brussels.

What is widely underestimated is the sheer unpopularity of the Brexit extensions. We recalled a Tory MP telling us in June that they had underestimated the electoral effect of the April extension, which resulted in the victory of the Brexit Party at the European elections. 

Experience has taught not to predict elections, and certainly not elections that have not even been scheduled. But one micro prediction we are happy to make is that the person who extends will not be elected in a general election. That person might well be Jeremy Corbyn. If there ever were a government of national unity, it would be under his leadership. We don’t want to discount that possibility completely, but we don’t think that Labour would do itself any favours by forcing a Brexit extension followed immediately by an election. Just as we don’t think the Tories would do themselves any favours with a no-deal Brexit followed immediately by an election.

Boris Johnson’s bulldozing strategy is not pretty, but it is working. His repeated use of the term surrender bill strikes a cord not only with core Tory voters, but with many people in the country. Steven Swinford of the Times tells us that the Tories have done a lot of polling on this specific term, and they have come to the conclusion that it damages the Labour Party. We are reminded of the late 1980s, when it was Labour Party that used the damaging term of a poll tax to describe what was officially known as the community charge. It was the poll tax that sank Margaret Thatcher’s government - not her position on Europe.

In his Times lead story this morning, Swinford writes about a warning by government ministers of riots on the scale of the Gilet Jaunes in France if Brexit were frustrated. We made a similar prediction right after the referendum. Dominic Cummings yesterday provoked a Labour MP who complained to him about death threats, by telling him to pass Brexit. This is politics on an extremely ugly scale. Johnson himself pulled back a little yesterday, promising to moderate his language a little bit, but his team and his ministers are clearly doubling down.

The YouGov poll, with polling done on Sep 25, shows the Conservatives at 33% and LibDems and Labour both at 22%. This would translate into 348 seats for the Tories which is an absolute majority of 30, 163 for Labour and 77 for the LibDems. The Brexit Party scores 14% but does not get a single seat.

What one needs to understand about this and other polls is the interplay of two conflicting dynamics. On the pro-Brexit side the Tories are competing with the Brexit Party. The pro-Remain vote is split between Labour and the LibDems. Johnson is managing to squeeze out the Brexit Party more than Labour is managing to squeeze out the LibDems. These dynamics might change, for example if Johnson himself were to extend Brexit. It is best to understand the relation between percentage votes and seats in the UK in terms of thresholds. For the LibDems to get more seats than Labour, they would need to poll a lot more than 22%. At 14%, the Brexit Party’s potential to deprive the Tories of seats is limited only to a few marginals. But, once they get above 20%, they would become as dangerous to the Tories as the LibDems are to Labour.

Next week, the Tories will hold their party conference in Manchester despite the vote in the Commons against a customary recess. We expect another rabble-rousing performance by Johnson. Since he became leader, the party’s fundraising has skyrocketed. September was their best month ever. There is a lot of support for him from business.

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This is the public section of the Eurointelligence Professional Briefing, which focuses on the geopolitical aspects of our news coverage. It appears daily at 2pm CET. The full briefing, which appears at 9am CET, is only available to subscribers. Please click here for a free trial, and here for the Eurointelligence home page.

 

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