The Gamblers II: Election Season
There is significant speculation that on the back of the prorogation crisis a general election is imminent. This shouldn’t really take anyone by surprise as an election has been a long time coming, but it is worthwhile to think about why it is happening now. First, I need to restate a simple fact: Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings do not take calculated risks, they are gamblers. They do not have contingency plans, apart from doubling down on their bets. So why are they considering this particular gamble?
Simply put, prorogation has backfired. They gambled that dismissing parliament would buy them time, but instead provoked a furious response up and down the country. The idea that a government without a mandate from a general election and barely commanding a working majority could dismiss parliament during the most profound political crisis this country has seen in decades was indescribably foolish; the pretence that it was only done to bring forward a new legislative agenda was a transparent falsehood; and let’s not even talk about how stupendously hypocritical members of the cabinet have looked over the past few days. The result has been that the opposition and Tory rebels have had their attention focussed on legislating the government into an extension sooner rather than later. A general election is a way for Johnson and Cummings to raise the stakes before their hands can be tied.
Is this a good bet?
Some people have come to regard Cummings as a strategic genius. He isn’t. He is an audacious gambler, but this move could pay off. It requires a compelling ‘slobs vs. snobs’ narrative in the election with Boris Johnson living his Classics fantasy as ‘Tribune of the Plebs’ against the sneering patricians of Westminster. They are reckoning that Corbyn will not be able to contend with a rival who has more charisma than a tin of store-brand baked beans. Johnson’s alleged magnetic personality will pull back all the Brexit Party voters, draw in Labour Brexiters, and tame the rebellious wing of his own party either by deselection or forcing them into line.
Could it go wrong?
Yes. There is a lot riding on Farage not anteing up, but it is not clear why he would fold given that the Brexit Party is still reasonably robust in the polls. If he can take 10% of the vote, the Tories are in trouble. Then there is Scotland. The small bastion of Tory seats north of the border is critical to the parliamentary calculus. Boris Johnson would not be in No 10 without them. Ruth Davidson’s resignation could be a mortal blow and another party could take up the flag of unionism in Scotland. Finally, there are the liberal middle-class Tories who live in the suburbs. Johnson and Cummings are banking on their fear of Corbyn keeping them onside. However, if these voters are concerned with economic prosperity, then ‘no deal’ is a more immediate threat than the potential nationalisation of the railways. They may switch to the Liberal Democrats as a counterbalance to any extremes on the left or the right. This leaves the Tories torn apart from three directions.
Against this is the belief that Johnson is so charismatic that the people will gleefully accept the harm caused by a No Deal Brexit for no apparent reason other than 52% of them voted for some sort of Brexit in 2016. It seems over optimistic.
Oh, Jeremy Corbyn
Yet, the problem with this bet is that Johnson is not able to make it on his own. If the 3 September vote is considered a confidence matter, it doesn’t trigger an election if it is lost. Much to Michael Gove’s chagrinthe government is constrained by law. It is bound by the Fixed-Term Parliament Act. This means Johnson needs the support of the opposition to get an early election. They need Corbyn to support this move. Will he? It would be odd if he didn’t. Corbyn has been loudly calling for an election for months. To demur now, would be a public embarrassment. But only a fool would charge into what Tony Blair has called an ‘elephant trap’. If Corbyn isn’t completely reckless, he would only agree to an election at a date that can avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit. But this would require faith in Johnson and Cummings as the PM sets the date of the election. Who could possibly trust them after the prorogation palaver?
Alternatively, if Johnson loses the confidence vote and doesn’t get an election, then there is a chance for alternative government to form in the two weeks that follow. This could be a government of national unity to manage Brexit or a caretaker government to provide a long extension in order for there to be a decent timetable for an election or even a referendum. If Corbyn decides to eat a bit of crow, he might find that Johnson and Cummings have nothing left to put into the pot.