With Lib Dems currently enjoying a resurgence, even if Labour take a more pro-EU position it could be too little, too late for Remain voters
“If there is one point we politicians need to remember, it is that the people are our bosses,” Boris Johnson said before pausing. At that moment, Tory MPs held their breath. They wondered if their new leader was about to call an election from the steps of Downing Street.
Instead, Johnson went on to fire off an ambitious array of pledges and promises to help the people with their day to day lives: more bobbies on the beat, a solution to the social care crisis – and that’s before we mention his pledge to deliver Brexit by the end of October. That tall order means that the prospect of an early trip to the polling booth continues to weigh heavily on MPs’ minds.
Talk of an early election has been rampant in Westminster for months. Ever since Theresa May lost her party’s majority in the 2017 election, this government has looked in a fragile state. Even in combination with the DUP, it’s majority is down to just two—and there are a host of Tory MPs who are determined to try and block no deal come what May.
However, where May’s government were keen to do what ever they could to avoid an early trip to the polls – even if that meant delaying Brexit – the Johnson government takes a different approach. Johnson’s first priority is for the UK to Leave by the end of October ‘do or die’. With a tiny working majority and a Tory party divided on that very issue, there’s a chance that Johnson has to seek a mandate from the people in order to get there.
Although Johnson told Tory MPs this week at the 1922 meeting of Tory backbenchers that he didn’t want one – and No 10 stress that they have no plans for one – their behaviour suggests that they are at the very least preparing for the possibility of one. This is a government that has made clear in its first week that it is in full campaign mode.
The first week of the Johnson government has seen the new Prime Minister establish his government as one determined to get things done. 17 of May’s ministers have been shown the door replaced with a Brexit heavy Cabinet, Johnson has promised drastic domestic return and taken the fight to Labour in his first appearance at the despatch box. The realities of this Parliament haven’t changed – there is currently no majority for any form of Brexit – but Johnson is clear that his government is determined to defy the gloomsters and deliver what so many people have said he cannot. On Brexit, Johnson’s red line it to scrap the backstop altogether. Something EU leaders have said they cannot countenance.
Just as Boris Johnson hopes to avoid a no-deal Brexit by preparing for one, Johnson allies hope he will avoid an early election by being on a constant general election footing. The hope is that positive pledges, strong rhetoric on Brexit and appearances across the UK will lead to a natural boost in the polls that will then both pressure MPs to play ball and send a signal to the EU that they should prepare to renegotiate – or risk no deal.
To get match fit, several steps have already been taken. One clear sign can be found in the appointment of Vote Leave chief Dominic Cummings as a senior No 10 adviser – referred to as the CEO by No. 10 staff. Cummings masterminded the official Leave campaign in the EU referendum – going on to be played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the TV drama Brexit: An Uncivil War – which won against the odds.
The Cummings’ strategy for Prime Minister Johnson? To reunite the Leave vote by putting the Brexit party ‘back in their box’ as Johnson has put it. Then take on a divided Remain vote in any election. With the Liberal Democrats currently enjoying a resurgence, even if Labour take a more pro-EU position it could be too little, too late for many Remain voters.
The formation of Johnson’s government – which saw 17 of May’s ministers shown the door – was striking not just for its seeming brutality. Johnson has put some clear blue water between himself and his predecessor by making clear that this is a Leave government.
This is a government formed heavily of those people who campaigned for Leave in the referendum. While it may be a cause of upset in the Parliamentary party, this group will be able to put out a coherent unapologetic Brexit line both in the running of their departments and their media appearances.
As for Johnson’s personal approval ratings, plans are already afoot to try and endear him to the nation. Johnson is to embark on a tour of the United Kingdom – including a visit to Scotland where he has a popularity problem polling below the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage. The Scottish Conservatives are seen as crucial to the Tories staying in power after they enjoyed a resurgence North of the border in the 2017 election.
While Johnson needs to at least neutralise him on certain parts of the country, there are other areas where he needs to cement his popularity. There will be a special focus on the North of England over the next 100 days. Areas which voted heavily to leave are seen as crucial to Tory success in a general election.