Rethinking Europe

Johnson: A Divider, Not a Uniter

Will UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s divide and rule strategy really work?

Takeaways


  • Will UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s divide and rule strategy really work?
  • “No deal” is not popular in the UK. Approximately only one-third of British voters support it.
  • Labour is in a shambolic shape. It is wracked with allegations of anti-Semitism, leaking members and cash and unable to maintain a clear position on Brexit.
  • The Tories have far more financial resources to fight an election than any other party and have most of the media on their side.
  • We are likely to soon find out whether Johnson becomes the shortest serving Prime Minister in British history.

Can Boris Johnson win a General Election? The main plank of his policy platform is “no deal.” If necessary, taking the UK out of the EU without even any transition arrangement by 31st October.

“No deal” is, perhaps not surprisingly, not that popular. Approximately only one-third of British voters support no deal.

However, the Johnsonian strategy is to seek to lever that one-third via the British first past the post system to divide the opposition and deliver a Tory majority in a general election. Will this strategy really work?

Tory strategists are relying on the division between Corbyn’s Labour Party and the pro-EU parties grouped around the Liberal Democrats (e.g. Plaid Cymru and the Greens).

Johnson’s aim is to build a large voting coalition of no deal voters, from the Tories, the Brexit Party (currently polling around 15%) and some Labour voters.

Ramping up “No Deal” rhetoric

To achieve this he has been ramping up the “no deal” rhetoric and given the impression that he is actually serious about no deal. He has also been parading a menu of promises of more social spending for Labour voters, and tax cuts to Tory voters, together with tougher anti immigration rhetoric to build that coalition.

If this strategy of no deal rhetoric, public spending, tax cuts and anti-immigration rhetoric delivers him over 30% Johnson could gain a majority with the other parties polling in the low to mid-20s.

Underpinning this strategy is the reality that the Tories have far more financial resources to fight an election than any other party and have most of the media on their side.

In addition to which the principal opposition party, Labour, is in a shambolic shape. It is wracked with allegations of anti-Semitism, leaking members and cash and unable to maintain a clear position on Brexit.

Corbyn has also undermined Labour’s election machine by pushing for deselection of Labour MPs. When Labour is facing a momentous and historic general election campaign which will determine Britain’s future Labour is engulfed in further internal turmoil.

Unbelievably, Corbyn has ordered the start of deselection processes which permits Labour members to deselect MPs to go into operation from this autumn-at exactly the time a general election is expected.

So Labour MPs and activists are going to be wholly distracted with internal debate and bloodletting when they should be pulling together to fight the Tory enemy.

In such a context, the Tory strategists believe they can deliver a majority for Johnson. Plus the new Prime Minister is a far better campaigner than Theresa May, and will be far better on the election stump than Corbyn.

From a Tory perspective, the strategy is bold but they see there is a real chance of pulling off a stunning election win.

There are however risks

While Labour is in a shambles, the Liberal Democrats are resurgent, regularly polling in the low to middle 20s.

The Liberals are also seeking to pull together a “Remain Alliance” consisting of the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Plaid Cymru and a group of independent Labour and Conservative MPs. Non-compete and single candidate agreements have already been agreed in 120 parliamentary constituencies with more agreements to come.

Tory strategists believe that this co-operation will have minimal effect. They accept that they may lose perhaps 20-30 seats to the Liberal Democrats but that will be offset by gains in the midlands and the north, as more working class Labour and Brexiter voters switch to the Tories.

Will it work in practice?

However, it is open to question how easy it will be for Johnson’s strategy to work in practice. Pushing no deal may bring a right-wing coalition together, but it also repels moderate and liberal conservative voters into the Liberal Democrat campaign.

Given that the majority of Labour voters are also against no deal, and see Corbyn as being insufficiently resolute against Brexit, Labour voters may well be willing to lend their votes to the Liberal’s Remain Alliance.

The danger for Johnson is that if the Liberal Remain Alliance pushes above 25% and toward 30%, taking many more Conservative seats across southern and urban England.

At the same time, he has to hope that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party does not manage to lock down more than 10% of the vote, otherwise the Conservatives face being split from the right.

More fundamentally, no matter how much better a campaigner Johnson is over May, he is likely to face the same problem as May.

Controlling the narrative

In any general election it is extremely difficult to control the narrative. Johnson may start off trumpeting no deal Brexit. But after about day three he will find that the debate has moved on to questions of Tory stewardship, health care, social security and housing over the last nine years.

Sustaining a populist Brexit campaign in the teeth of more protean voters concerns and a lengthy Tory record to defend may prove difficult.

With a vote of confidence likely to be tabled in early September we are likely to soon find out whether the Tories no deal strategy really will work.

And whether Mr. Johnson becomes the shortest serving Prime Minister in British history (currently that record his held by Canning who was Prime Minister for 119 days in 1827).

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About Alan Riley

Alan Riley is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Statecraft, London, and Senior Non-Resident, Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C.

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