June 20, 2019
Forget the candidates and look at those who vote
The big news in the UK is that somebody who never had the slightest chance of becoming prime minister, is now not becoming prime minister. Interested in the second item in the news?
We understand why reporters are clamouring for a real contest, and why they are writing up the chances of hopeless candidates. It is an arithmetical certainty that one of the hopeless contenders will make to the final two in today's last set of polls. None of them have any hope of supplanting Boris Johnson because he is the only one with a clear message on Brexit: whatever happens, no extension.
That said, a BBC reporter wanted to have deciphered during the TV debate that Boris Johnson had softened his position. Johnson said something along the lines that it would be eminently feasible to deliver a deal before October. The reporter interpreted the statement as meaning that a no-deal Brexit was eminently feasible, which would indeed have been a qualification of the previous position. We did not read it that way.
Perhaps the more important news story was a poll by YouGov revealing the sheer extremism among Conservative members. Remember these are the ones who will vote. The polls asked about trade-offs: would you still want Brexit even if that meant Scotland would leave the UK? 63% said yes. Or if it damaged the economy? 61% said yes. Or if Northern Ireland left the UK? 59% said yes. The most extreme answers is this: what if the Conservative Party itself were destroyed? 54% still think, yes, Brexit is worth it.
These polls are more revealing than the headline polls because they tell us how strongly the pro-Brexit feelings are. The Remain side never quite managed to get passions up that high. It also shows why Johnson has enjoyed a run-away lead.
It also explains why Johnson has no incentive to seek any Brexit extension. The chance of an early election is high, not just of Brexit but because the Tory-DUP alliance hangs on a three-seat majority. If he has not delivered Brexit by October, the chances are that the Brexit party will destroy the Tories at the next general election and hand Jeremy Corbyn a landslide victory. A Brexit extension would be a political suicide note. Johnson would stand a much better chance if he proposed elections in October, pitching his clear position for an immediate Brexit against Jeremy Corbyn's prevarication.
In this context we noted a story in the Guardian. Corbyn has just finished reading Harold Wilson's autobiography, and was particularly impressed by the former Labour prime minister's decision not to take a stance in the 1975 EU referendum and to let his colleagues battle it out.
That seems to us the most plausible course of action for him to take. The Labour party is divided. A group of 25 Labour MPs have written to Corbyn not to support Remain. All of them would stand to lose their seats if Labour were to adopt a formal anti-Brexit position. The number of Labour MPs opposed to a second referendum exceeds the number of Tory MPs in favour, which is why we think a general election is the more likely public-vote scenario. Also consider that both Johnson and Corbyn have reasons to prefer an election to a referendum.
So what would happen if the EU were to give Johnson a new deal and this went to parliament? We would not rule out that Johnson might unite his party and secure some votes from opposition MPs. In this scenario, we do not believe there would be a majority for a second referendum. The number of Tories in favour of a second referendum would then shrink to single digits, while the 25 Labour MPs would still be opposed to it - and glad to be off the hook. A no-deal Brexit scenario, whether intended from the outset or the result of no deal being agreed or ratified, is very likely to result in an election.