Should Boris Johnson Call a Snap Election?
Boris Johnson’s plan is coming into focus with the announcement of his cabinet. He has, for all intents and purposes, reassembled Vote Leave as a government. These are all seasoned campaigners and they have a reputation for success based on their victory in the 2016 referendum (never mind the questions of the legality). It seems highly likely that Johnson is planning a pre-Brexit election.
Tory Grand Strategy
The war plan for Team Johnson would be to neutralise Farage on Brexit by burnishing their Vote Leave credentials, by taking an aggressive line (at least in public) against Brussels, and promising heaps of public spending in ‘left behind’ areas. This, they hope, will lure over sufficient pro-Brexit, former-Labour voters especially in the North. They are betting that Boris will be able to win these votes the way he won votes in a decidedly un-Tory London in his mayoral campaigns. If successful he can eat Farage’s lunch and deliver a body blow to Labour’s electoral coalition that will take a generation to recover from. If Labour loses large parts of the North, on top of Scotland, then there isn’t a path to government for them anymore.
This, typical of Johnson, is a high risk strategy. It rests on two particular gambles. The first is that it is leaves a large number of ridings vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats. By chasing Mansfield, he abandons Richmond. There are a lot of seats like Richmond that are essential to a Tory government and they aren’t all in the South. We can look at the Conservatives losing control of Trafford earlier in the year as a sign of their vulnerability. The liberal values of London and other metropolitan areas are filtering into reliable Tory suburbs up and down the country. These are Remain voters and, while they might tolerate a sensible Brexit, they might not tolerate a Farage tribute band posing as a Conservative government. They do not see the ‘socially liberal, fiscally conservative’ brand that David Cameron tried to build into the Conservative Party represented in the Johnson and his cabinet. These people will go to the Liberal Democrats.
The bet that Boris can win disaffected former-Labour voters in the old industrial North is far from sure. Yes, he won over London, but he has accumulated a great deal of baggage since then. It barely needs to be mentioned but the North isn’t London. Northern voters, especially the ones he is trying to court, have long memories and they remember Margaret Thatcher. The destruction of the old industries is a wound that has not healed and the Tories are still blamed. Johnson’s initial speech on the doorstep of No. 10 was full of spending promises to impoverished portions of the country, but with his cabinet packed with the Britannia Unchained crowd it is evident that the long term plan isn’t a revival of the ‘wet’ tendency of the Conservative Party. The new government has more Thatcherites in it than Thatcher’s did. The voters might flip to Farage with his man down the pub routine, but getting them to vote Conservative would require a cultural shift. I’m not sure the Prime Minister, drenched as he is in the institutions of privilege and surrounded by Thatcherites, can successfully make this sales pitch.
If the new Prime Minister contrives to bring about a general election he will be taking a great gamble with the future of his party. He should look at the latest polling. His party is barely ahead of the LibDems, with Labour and the Brexit Party not that far behind. In a race like this it could be that the Tories get caught in an irresistible pincer between the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats. It is possible that Brexit Party supporters simply won’t vote Tory and, having alienated moderate Tory voters, the Liberal Democrats take more seats than anticipated. The Conservatives could find themselves reduced to a rump of shire seats. It could be the end of their party as a major political force.
If you don’t think this can happen I would refer you to the 1993 Canadian federal election. The governing Progressive Conservative Party lost all but two seats. Its vote was cannibalised by an insurgent rightwing party, a separatist party in Quebec, a moribund social democratic party, and a resurgent Liberal Party. There are parallels.