Johnson risks getting the election he wants but the result he fears

Prime minister has already alienated moderate Conservative voters

A video grab  shows Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during his first Prime Ministers Questions session in the House of Commons in London on September 4, 2019.(Photo by - / PRU / AFP)

A video grab shows Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during his first Prime Ministers Questions session in the House of Commons in London on September 4, 2019.(Photo by - / PRU / AFP)

 

Tuesday night’s result is a defeat that Boris Johnson has worked tirelessly to secure. From proroguing parliament to furiously provoking rebels on his own side, Johnson created this moment of crisis. That’s because his political strategy aims to force a general election before Britain leaves the EU – and to use Brexit to win it. In a single day, Johnson managed to drive one Tory MP to walk across the chamber to join the Liberal Democrats, others to announce they would not seek re-election, and more to walk through the opposition lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn. It is quite the political feat.

In his personal life and his political career, Johnson has shown himself to be a risk-taker. But while a general election is a huge risk, for him there is a greater risk of inaction. Johnson has no viable negotiating strategy for Brexit itself and yet he invested all his political capital in meeting the October deadline. For all the bluster about no-deal, the reality is that the chaos it would cause means the only gamble for the Tories bigger than a general election before Brexit is one afterwards.

Johnson risks getting the election he wants but the result he fears. The biggest mistake most political leaders make is to believe that the strategy that got them to where they are will take them to where they want to be. The same is true for Johnson. His rise to power has been propelled by a toxic combination of ruthless ambition, the absence of integrity, and a wholly detached relationship with the truth. The immediate political crisis that he has manufactured is the product of those qualities.

The problem for Johnson is that the top job comes with unprecedented scrutiny, and the strategy has already hit bumps in the road. The lie that progress was being made in the Brexit talks was skilfully exposed by Philip Hammond. The threat to deselect Tory MPs that voted to prevent no-deal blew up in his face as Johnson faces the uncomfortable prospect of deselecting Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames. Unlike a leadership campaign where he coaxed the media into talking about model buses, attention is focused on him like never before.

Indeed, Johnson himself struggled to play the part of “prime minister of the United Kingdom” when he emerged from a Downing Street garden party on Monday evening to claim he didn’t want the general election that he is so obviously seeking – and had little but bluster to offer the Commons when scrutinised about his Brexit plans. This isn’t a statesman at work; it’s a painful am-dram production.

Meanwhile, menacing stage directions spew out of No 10 as if Dominic Cummings was directing a pantomime in a Surrey village hall. We are told Johnson will ignore the law, that he will shut down parliament, that he will even squat in Downing Street should he lose a vote of confidence. This kind of bluster is an import from US politics – or rather Hollywood’s pastiche of Washington. It is alien to our political culture. If Boris Johnson refuses to leave Downing Street, then the police will simply escort him from the building – something Dominic Cummings knows a thing or two about.

Johnson knows that his only viable electoral strategy is to unite the right behind him by vanquishing the Brexit party. Since Johnson cannot out-Brexit the Brexit party, he must usurp Farage as their champion. No matter what Farage would do, Johnson would go further. The problem for the Tories is that a performance targeted at an audience of radicalised pensioners can also be seen by everyone else.

The risk for Johnson is that he has already alienated moderate Conservative voters – those that were fond of Ruth Davidson and still regard the coalition government as a success. In Scotland alone, the Tories could lose up to a dozen seats. The turn to the hard right by Johnson’s Conservative party makes Labour’s shift to the left under Corbyn appear genteel by comparison.

More widely, there is no majority for a no-deal exit, meaning that opposition parties could stand to gain from Johnson’s extreme stance. Tonight’s defeat may secure him the election he wants, but it could well deliver an outcome very different from the one that the “bad boys of Brexit” thought they had in the bag.

Tom Kibasi is director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. He writes in a personal capacity.

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