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COMMENTARY

PM Johnson gambles all on election that will transform Britain

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Election outcome will show whether the move was strategic genius or fanatical folly.

BORIS Johnson's place in political history is assured, although it will be a few more weeks until we know whether it is the place he would have wanted. By pursuing a high-stakes confrontational approach from the moment of winning the Conservative leadership, Mr Johnson has driven the country to the brink of an October election that ensures he will either be the UK's shortest-serving prime minister or the man who broke the parliamentary logjam to deliver Brexit. Whatever else, Mr Johnson has not been timid.

After two years of parliamentary stasis, British voters are going to be faced with an election that will transform Britain. It is an election that will determine not only the future of Brexit, but of the Union too. Voters are effectively being forced to choose between Mr Johnson and the serious possibility of a no-deal Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn's radical left agenda. It is going to be a painful contest for those who think of themselves as centrists.

Mr Johnson had little choice. He has lost his majority and lost control of the Brexit process. The proposed legislation blocking no deal left him unable to negotiate with the EU. An election was the only way forward.

This was perhaps predictable. What few could have foreseen is the scale of Tory blood-letting. In just a few short weeks Mr Johnson has also orchestrated the biggest rupture in the Conservative party for decades, sending it into that election having expelled 21 of his own MPs.

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The Conservatives are being shorn of all who are not prepared to sign up to Mr Johnson's world view. They will go into the election telling voters there is no longer room in the party for Kenneth Clarke, Rory Stewart, Nicholas Soames and nearly 20 others.

The upshot is that some of the criticisms the Tories planned to aim at Mr Corbyn can now be turned back on the prime minister. Moderates - many of whom voted for Theresa May's Brexit deal - are being purged. The party has been taken over by its right wing. For opponents of Brexit, the Conservatives are now threatening the stability of the British economy.

Many believe that Mr Johnson has intentionally engineered this contest setting up a "people versus parliament election". Later on Wednesday, his chancellor, Sajid Javid, will announce spending commitments on police, schools and hospitals which now are merely election promises.

More likely is that Mr Johnson hoped to avoid a poll before Brexit while recognising that it was a likely consequence once it became clear that he really was ready to accept a no-deal outcome. He calculated that failure to deliver Brexit on schedule would be catastrophic for his party and was not prepared to waver from his position.

But this strategy is incredibly risky. Though the party will fight the election with unity of purpose, it still looks divided. It has lost Ruth Davidson, the hugely popular leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Many of the 13 seats she helped to win in 2017 are at serious risk. In the south and south-west, Mr Johnson faces losing Tory seats in Remain strongholds, especially to the Liberal Democrats.

This means he will need to win up to 40 or 50 seats elsewhere, especially in northern Labour seats that voted Leave. He will hope that the Lib Dems split the anti-Tory vote by taking Remain votes and the votes of those who oppose Brexit but cannot support Mr Corbyn. The Labour leader meanwhile will seek to focus on other issues: austerity, social justice and the environment. By offering a referendum he will seek to keep Remainers on board but he will not want the contest to be all about Brexit.

Mr Johnson will also need to crush Nigel Farage's Brexit party if it insists on standing against him. The path to success is discernible and Mr Johnson is certainly a formidable campaigner, but it is an extraordinary political gamble.

If he does win, he will emerge not only hugely empowered, but will also have five years' grace to get the UK through the inevitable early crises of Brexit. He would have the mandate to seek a different deal, though that would mean delay.

He will also have refashioned the Conservative party since its support base will be shorn of a major chunk of well-heeled metropolitan southern liberals. Instead it will be more reliant on a nationalist and working-class northern base not overly keen on spending cuts and lower taxes for the wealthy.

Mr Johnson may still consider himself a one-nation Tory but he has engineered a radical right takeover of his party. The consequences go beyond Brexit. While his allies at the top might see themselves as free-marketeers, the Tories will have more than a touch of Trump about them. Defeat will almost certainly signal a second referendum and a Labour government or Labour-led coalition - probably under Mr Corbyn.

There are still a few hoops to jump through before the election is called but if MPs stick to their resolve to legislate away the option of a no-deal Brexit, the contest will be called within a few days.

Labour does not trust Mr Johnson to call the contest before Brexit and so has made clear it wants to see that legislation enacted before it grants the poll. But this is a matter of days. By the end of the week the country will be heading into its third election in four years and the most momentous contest in decades.

Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson's chief strategist, has long believed that it would come to this, and so the Tories have been preparing from the moment of Mr Johnson's victory. The contest has been framed in the way he and his strategists hoped. They have used division for definition. We will have to await the election outcome to know if this was strategic genius or fanatical folly. FT

  • The writer is is editorial director of the Financial Times.

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