Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy
Until this week I had thought that Brexit, though something I had opposed, had become inevitable. The referendum victory, though narrow, was clear, and those who continued to oppose Brexit lacked the ruthlessness and tactical sophistication to press their case successfully.
That’s started to change. The campaign, begun in earnest during the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, to take Britain out of the EU is now at risk of failing altogether. The manner of its failure, the scorched earth tactics of its more extreme partisans, and the increasing radicalisation of the Remain electorate (reflected in the Lib Dems’ tactically astute shift in position to direct revocation of Article 50, without a referendum) could cause a significant portion of the public to feel completely alienated from the political system, at a time when Britain’s constitutional traditions are being subverted for factional gain.
(As in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, blame for constitutional vandalism is not evenly shared; people just disagree about who should shoulder most of it.)
So though I opposed Brexit, I still don’t think it should currently be reversed. Around half of Remainers still see EU membership in transactional terms: but it is that transactional idea of membership that David Cameron tested to destruction. Many of the rest have turned into pro-European partisans, but out of opposition to Brexit rather than love of European integration.
Should a stable majority of the British public come to understand that the European Union is a project of political integration that involves the nation states of Europe sharing the sovereignty they once jealously guarded, then the UK should rejoin. But cancelling Brexit now would be bad for both the UK, which would find itself kicking against the loveless marriage to which it had returned, and the EU, which would have an unhappy and divided Britain to contend with.
The Brexiteers failed internationally because they overestimated Britain’s power. They began promising the easiest trade deal in history and some even suggested that Ireland should leave a failing EU and rejoin the UK; now they’re stuck negotiating a trade deal with Phil Hogan, the Irish Commissioner.
They failed domestically because they mistook a moral argument for a political one.
Their moral claim is that winning the referendum creates an unanswerable case for having some kind, indeed any kind, of Brexit. Both sides of the referendum campaign said that they would abide by the result, and that moral duty, they believe, is sufficiently strong that it should override other considerations, including Britain’s traditions as a representative, not a direct, democracy; whether the actual exit deal negotiated in fact turned out to be good enough; and whether during the time between referendum vote and implementation, the people might have changed their mind, or the electorate changed its composition (changes, in particular youth registration and naturalisation of EU citizens, themselves prompted by the Brexit vote).
But moral claims on their own do not a political strategy make. Brexiteers needed to have converted their victory on the day of 23rd June into a broad and lasting consensus in favour of Brexit. It had appeared that May had planned to do just that when she became Tory leader in 2016, but she changed tack during her conference speech that year in pursuit of a very specific hard-right fever dream that came unstuck the following July.
I’ll come back to this electoral mirage in a moment. Its effects however, were to deprive May of a majority, force her to rely on the DUP whose demands proved incompatible with those of the EU, as well as the need to avoid giving the SNP an argument to demand the same status as Northern Ireland, and resulted in the Withdrawal Agreement, which couldn’t pass the House of Commons, disastrous EU election results, the rise of the Brexit Party and her resignation and replacement by Boris Johnson.
Johnson inherited a war on two fronts — against the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems — and devised a sort of Schlieffen Plan to get the Conservative Party through. Complete Brexit by 31st October, then pivot to the kind of one-nation Toryism he professed as mayor, to give a country tired of Brexit and austerity something to unite around.
Over the summer, it looked like he had maintained just enough ambiguity about his intentions to keep his opponents divided. Instead he united them by proroguing Parliament and horrified the party by taking the whip from 21 rebels including Nicholas Soames and Philip Hammond, sparking the resignation of Amber Rudd, his own brother Jo, and even the Duke of Wellington. Whatever the Conservative Party is these days, it doesn’t have space for the descendants of Britain’s national heroes. Much of this is attributed to his senior adviser Dominic Cummings, who combines the flexibility of the younger Moltke with the defence-minded attitude of Marshal Foch.
Unable to force his policy through a parliament in which he doesn’t have a majority, having reduced that majority further by his purge, he has been outmaneouvred by Jeremy Corbyn; his bid to call an election twice blocked by the Commons.
Situation excellente says Cummings, j’attaque.
The quite obvious plan, as is clear from adverts promising a “People versus the Politicians” election, is to reactivate enough anger from Leave voters to win a parliamentary majority against a divided opposition. It’s a plan with superficial possibility. Some pollsters, particularly YouGov, are showing a sizeable Conservative lead. Others give a much closer result. Panelbase has a Tory lead of three points, Opinium of ten. Leaving aside differences in weighting, having five parties means that even variations of one or two percent because of sampling error can mean the difference between the Tories on 35, Labour on 25 and Lib Dems on 17, Brexit Party on 13 (Tory Majority of 88, says Electoral Calculus) and Tories on 32, Labour on 28, Lib Dems on 15, Brexit Party 15 (Hung Parliament. Tories ten short).
Consider this poll, conducted in the middle of the crisis by FocalData, for the Conservative Group for Europe, with a sample of 10,000 – enough to use the statistical technique for MRP:
- CON 33 per cent
- LAB 30 per cent
- LD 15 per cent
- BXP 11 per cent
- GRE 4 per cent
- NAT 4 per cent
- OTH 2 per cent
MRP calculates a statistical correlation between demographic characteristics (e.g. age, income) and voting behaviour, and then applies the results of those correlations to individual seats. The theory underlying it is that a 55-year-old man with a degree in Wakefield is likely to vote the same way as a 55-year-old man with a degree in Winchester. Wakefield votes differently to Winchester because different sorts of people live there, not because people from Wakefield are different to those in Winchester. This is broadly true (with some exceptions, which are relevant) and well-designed MRP has been able to predict individual constituency results far more accurately than uniform national swing. Crucially, it still works when swings are not uniform, and votes change between several parties, not just the big two.
That poll shows Labour a bit on the high side, and the Lib Dems a bit on the low side, but it is roughly in the region of recent polling. FocalData’s MRP calculations, which do not model Northern Ireland, yield 312 Tories, 242 Labour 21 Lib Dems, 52 SNP plus 5 others. I applied some swing modelling to these numbers, and if the Labour vote falls a few pecrentage points lower, and the Lib Dem vote rises, this could lead to the Conservatives winning a small majority; but equally small changes in the other direction could make Labour the largest party and able to form a majority for a second referendum with the support of the SNP and Lib Dems.
More ominous still, the poll asked Tory voters whether they would vote tactically to prevent a No Deal Brexit and a quarter said they were “likely” or “highly likely” to do so. I think this would be balanced by Labour voters who would vote tactically to ensure Brexit was done. Though I don’t think this question was asked, as there are fewer Labour Leavers than Tory Remainers a reasonable equivalent estimate would I think be 15 per cent.
I applied this adjustment to the individual constituency results, in two different ways. The first scenario adds takes a fraction of the Tory vote away and assigns it to the highest of Labour, Lib Dems, the Greens or one of the nationalist parties; it also takes a fraction of the Labour vote and assigns it to the highest of the Tory or Brexit Party column. The second scenario makes the assumption that Tories opposed to no deal are also opposed to Jeremy Corbyn, so it assigns the tactical vote to the pro-Remain party, other than Labour, who with the best chance of winning. Labour votes are assigned as in scenario 1.
Some caveats are in order: not everyone who says they’ll vote tactically actually will. Some will pick the wrong party and waste their vote; these estimates don’t take Labour-Lib Dem switching into account, and on the other side of the equation, they make the assumption that Brexit party voters who were thinking of switching to the Conservatives have already done so.
Nonetheless, the results are sobering. If anti-No Deal tactical voting included the possibility of voting Labour, the results would be a solid Labour majority of 50.
- CON 135
- LAB 374
- LD 63
- SNP 55
- GREEN 1
- PLAID 4
The possibility of this occurring could indeed deter anti-No Deal Tories from lending their votes to Labour. If Labour don’t benefit from anti-No Deal tactical voting the outcome is predicted as:
- CON 224
- LAB 277
- LD 71
- SNP 55
- PLAID 4
- GREEN 1
These are properly considered “edge” scenarios. Actual voter behaviour is likely to be somewhere in the middle (there will be some seats where Tories might feel comfortable voting for an increasingly rare Blairite, for example). Nonetheless, it makes an election a rather dicier prospect that some of its cheerleaders hope.
The fever dream I mentioned was the idea that the Conservative Party can somehow extend its reach into the northern working class (or, given the demographic profile of such voters, chiefly northern pensioners retired from industry) while still holding on to its urban professional vote in the cities and suburbs. A slightly more realistic version proposes cancelling the losses from cities and suburbs with greater inroads in to towns by adding a working class vote to the existing middle class Tory vote there. This has been partially successful in the south, the midlands (the only area where the Conservatives picked up seats in 2017) and probably in Wales, but has repeatedly failed in northern England, where people are willing to vote Leave, and even for the Brexit Party, but for whom a Conservative vote is a step too far.
I met quite a few of these voters on the outskirts of York in the 2017 campaign. They quite liked Theresa May herself, they said. She seemed solid and serious, but they didn’t trust the Tory party which, they felt, would always find a way, however devious, to screw people like them. The current front bench is not short of people who could convey that impression. Stirring up anger at the establishment and fear of Corbyn worked in the referendum, where Labour essentially gave up campaigning, but failed in the general election when Labour were able to keep onto their core vote. It would be quite a gamble, albeit in keeping with World War I inspired strategy, to repeat the 2017 plan two years later.
As I write, the Scottish courts have ruled Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament unlawful, prompting No 10 to issue an attack on “Scottish” judges, questioning their independence. This latest Fochian outburst is highly unwise and should not have come from a government of a party that still calls itself the Conservative and Unionist Party. The Acts of Union of 1706 and 1707 preserve the independence of Scottish and English legal systems and as a result jurisprudence has developed separately in the two nations of this kingdom. The Supreme Court, which hears the appeal next week has three options. It can declare prorogation lawful in both, allowing the SNP to say “English” judges overruled their traditions. It could declare it unlawful in both, which would, insofar as it upheld the Scottish verdict, require the Supreme Court to rule in effect that the Prime Minister had misled the Queen; or, it could produce the even more uncomfortable verdict that prorogation might have been lawful in England and Wales but unlawful in Scotland (in this situation the judgement that the Prime Minister misled the queen would still apply; but the English courts would have ruled that misleading her as to the reasons for prorogation was not, somehow, material to the case).
Also yesterday, a poll of Northern Ireland was released by Lord Ashcroft showing majority support there for the backstop, and an essentially evenly split vote on reunification with the Republic (51–49 in favour). The even split is maintained thanks to a majority of older voters continuing to support the Union. The youngest age group of voters breaks 60–40 in favour of a United Ireland.
The Johnson government’s strategy of heightening the contradictions has so far been an unqualified failure. Prorogation united the opposition to require him to seek an extension if he stays in office. The attempts to call an election failed. The removal of the whip from 21 Tory MPs reinforced their determination to defy number 10. Polling for the election itself increasingly suggests it would produce another hung parliament and quite possibly one led by a pro-second referendum administration. Continuing with this aggression is not only putting the Conservative Party’s continued existence at risk, and increasing the chances of Jeremy Corbyn establishing himself in No 10, it is threatening the integrity of the UK as a whole.
The Prime Minister needs to accept this failure and change tack. Leaving without a deal is no longer possible. Parliament will both prevent that, by requiring an extension, and, prevent an election that could (but probably wouldn’t) deliver a parliament that would accept it. Substantive modifications to the deal are also out of the question (the only one bruited is replacing the UK-wide backstop with an NI-only one, which is actually a retraction of a concession the UK made to the EU). The deal itself allows for a wide variety of Brexits, from Canadian-style free trade to a Norway style membership of the single market. If it is agreed, the UK will stay in the single market and customs union for at least a further year and a half, possibly up to three and a half years, limiting the economic shock of disruption. It would allow the Prime Minister to pivot to the One Nation Conservatism needed to win centrist voters back from the Lib Dems, and of course, it would allow him to tell Brexit Party supporters that we had left the EU.
The Spartans who consider this capitulation should think very carefully. Theresa May said there were three options: this deal, no deal, or no Brexit. The effect of prorogation has been to take away the option of no deal by constitutional means. The choice left is now this deal, no Brexit, or no United Kingdom.
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