Boris Johnson's Brexit tightrope
With a December election looming, the British prime minister can't afford to make one wrong step
Everything seems to be falling into place for Boris Johnson. The polls show the Conservative prime minister way out in front in the U.K.'s upcoming December 12 election. His conviction is infectious, and "Get Brexit Done" — his core campaign message — is beguilingly simple. The opposition is divided, and may chip away at each other's vote share in key constituencies. On top of that, the Brexit Party recently unilaterally decided not to contest Conservative seats in the election. In other words, if voters want to throw their weight behind the Leave campaign, Johnson is their only choice.
The result of this election will determine the nation's future more than any for generations, but while Johnson seems on course for victory, his plan to achieve it requires an organization and discipline that he and his colleagues seem to lack. With less than four weeks to go before the nation votes, Johnson's victory is not a sure thing.
The stakes are very high for the Conservatives. They are the only party that needs to win a majority in December, because in betraying their only potential coalition partner, Northern Ireland's DUP, they have no potential allies in the U.K. Parliament. If they fail to win a majority — or to at least come within one or two seats of a majority — their opponents will likely coalesce, and there will almost certainly be a second Brexit referendum, if not a reversal of the process altogether. Perhaps more painfully for Johnson, a man who has wanted to be "world king" since childhood, he would become the shortest-serving British prime minister in 100 years.
Conservatives' strategy is to make this election about Brexit, and in doing so, transpose the 2016 referendum coalition that voted to leave the European Union into December's general election. But the 52 percent of U.K. voters who voted Leave in 2016 straddled the political and social spectrum. Crucially, some of the areas with the highest proportion of Leave voters are found in the traditional Labour heartlands of Northern England and Wales, an area that has been dubbed the "red wall." Tories know they will lose a number of seats in Scotland, and in Remain voting constituencies in the South, so breaking the "red wall" has become the aim. But Britain is a nation with deeply ingrained party-political loyalties built up over time. Many Leave voters have long-held bitter resentment of Conservative leadership, and decades of family history voting for the Labour party, currently the Tory's main opposition. Success in December's election for the Tories rests on whether voters' fealty to Leave overrides these ancient affiliations. If the gamble pays off, the public will deliver a massive Conservative majority.
The polls give us a vague indication of where the public stands now. The Guardian's poll of polls — an average of all polls — has Conservatives enjoying a dominant 11-point lead over Labour, with 40 percent of the vote. This advantage translates into an imposing 50-seat majority in the House of Commons.
Still, it remains unclear where voters will stand after weeks of campaigning. In 2017, Johnson's predecessor Theresa May called an election buoyed by a 22-point lead in the polls. Her election strategy was similar: She wanted to unite Leave voters under a Conservative flag. But after a gruelling campaign that spiralled out of her control, May lost her party's majority in the Commons, and U.K. politics has been at loggerheads ever since. The Conservative Party is also at odds with itself: Many senior figures, moderate by temperament, have been cast out for being insufficiently loyal to the Brexit cause, while others have said they will not stand again in the coming election. Among them were some of the party's most proven and disciplined campaigners.
To tip the balance, the Tories have revealed a host of policies designed to sway voters in "red wall" constituencies, in the form of heavy investment in the three "people's priorities": schools, law and order, and health. On its face, this is a necessary, bold piece of populist electioneering, but it also opens the campaign up to non-Brexit policy issues where the opposition is strong. Born out of the ashes of Brexit, the current crop of Conservative leaders believe they can repaint themselves as a group of radicals who do not need to defend their predecessors' record, but in reality, a campaign about the National Health Service, policing, and education could be a quagmire for the Tories, who only recently under Johnson have emerged from years of "austerity" that left public services in tatters. A Labour government founded the NHS, and has a much stronger record funding it. Recently they pledged 6 years of free education to adults as part of their vision for a cradle-to-grave national education service. None of this is about Brexit, and all of it is appealing to "red wall" voters.
Johnson also wants to pitch the election as a presidential standoff between himself and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Years of floundering opposition have hurt Corbyn's popularity: A recent poll gave him a -43 public approval rating, compared to Johnson's +4. Naturally, Johnson's team wants to go for the jugular. The problem is that the Labour chief comes alive in a campaign. It was his brand of campaigning, with its digital expertise, an army of activists, and a radical forward-looking vision that outmaneuvered Theresa May in 2017. He managed to make the election about issues other than Brexit.
Of course, the colorless May, a dour professional politician, is the antithesis of Johnson. Nevertheless, while Boris plays well with the electorate, he, like his party, is also ill-disciplined, often unprepared, and gaffe-prone. Last week, as parts of the country flooded, Johnson was pilloried for his sluggish response. Again the Conservative party looks out of touch and unconcerned with the lives of the people whose votes it needs.
The campaign to come will decide December's result. Johnson's team is betting that for the next four weeks, they can keep the narrative under tight control, but they face an opposition of skilled campaigners who relentlessly steer the conversation away from Brexit and onto broader campaign issues. Even though the Conservative path to victory is visible, it is perilously narrow, and the Tories lack the qualities to walk it safely.