August 02, 2019
A useful object lesson of what can go wrong for Johnson
Eurointelligence will publish for another week until our scheduled annual holiday which starts on Monday, 12 August. We are already noticing a drop-off in the volume of European news as governments, central banks and European institutions start their holidays. We will therefore use any arising news gaps next week for some more reflective pieces.
The one country with an ongoing hyper-active political agenda is the UK. Last night’s by-election in the Welsh constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire came up with a predicted result - a victory of the LibDems.
The result flies in the face of some lazy assumptions that have recently gained ground. We notice in particular that more and more political observers are trying to figure out Johnson’s strategy. The consensus seems to be veering towards the one we dismissed yesterday: that Dominic Cummings, Johnson's de facto chief of staff, is trying to cause an accident in parliament in order to force elections.
How such a strategy can backfire was amply demonstrated last night in Brecon and Radnorshire. If you added the Tory and Brexit party votes together, there would have been a Tory majority. But the 3000 Brexit Party votes in the constituency frustrated the Tory strategy. What happened is the very opposite of the recent nationwide polling trend: the pro-Remain Left united; and the pro-Leave right split.
This is telling us that we are still at a tipping point, which could swing the game decisively in one direction and then suddenly in another, very much like the weather. Don’t think for a minute that you have figured out the strategy - because you haven’t. And, even if there were a strategy today, it might not be the strategy next month. And if it is still the strategy next month, it is far from clear that it can work.
In general, it is a mistake to extrapolate single constituency polls to a nationwide trend. This by-election was triggered after the sitting Tory MP got caught in an expenses scam, which produced an anti-incumbent swing that might be less strong elsewhere. What appears to have happened in Brecon and Radnorshire is that the LibDems picked up Tory voters on the left, and the Brexit Party picked up Tory voters on the right. There was no Boris effect - in contrast to what national polls suggest.
We see this election not so much as a pointer of what will happen in a general election, but as a blueprint of what could go wrong. If it goes wrong for Johnson, then we will end up with lots of results like yesterday's.
We think that the strategy of the Johnson administration is not yet set in stone, but there are a couple of fixed points that have not changed. We see only three election scenarios that might work for Johnson: a Brexit-delivery election before October 31, say on October 17 or 24; a no-deal Brexit with elections either on Brexit day itself the week after; or the sequence of a deal, followed by a then-necessary technical extension, and ultimately elections.
We remain as doubtful as ever that parliament can take no deal off the table. Those who use that or similar expressions never tell us how. We believe that a government hell-bent on a no-deal Brexit has several avenues open to frustrate an extension request; and we don’t think there are parliamentary majorities in favour of outright revocation.
Johnson had a good start, but he faces the same political realities as his predecessor. The European Research Group said yesterday it would vote against the withdrawal treaty even with the Irish backstop removed. One of its leading members said 60 MPs would vote against a withdrawal agreement under any circumstances. That would be larger than the number of Labour MPs Johnson can hope to pick up. A withdrawal deal strategy would require a broad coalition in the House of Commons, which we don’t see at this point. Johnson could offer a short Brexit extension and a post-Brexit election after the ratification of the deal. A post-Brexit election might suit both leaders. Johnson can claim to have delivered Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn avoids the second referendum issue, and can focus on the issues that interest him. But we don’t think that the Labour Party would let him.
We consider the path in the next month as wide open - wider than the consensus believes. We agree with Ian Leslie’s assessment in the New Statesman that Cummings is a man for the big sweep strategies, not necessarily the details of policy. He wants to defeat both Nigel Farage and the Remainers. The delivery of Brexit is at the top of his agenda. If the government has the technical means to deliver a no-deal, why should it not do it?