Boris Johnson Is Running Out of Time

Boris Johnson has been backed into a corner. After promising to deliver Brexit, he’s instead been forced to ask the EU for yet another delay. Now he’s hurtling toward an election in which he will have to face the voters empty-handed. Meanwhile, Labour’s strategy is clear: refuse to fight the Brexit culture war and focus on the party’s radical vision for the future.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street on October 23, 2019 in London, England. Dan Kitwood / Getty

Over the course of four days and three votes, Boris Johnson and the Conservatives saw their promise that the United Kingdom would leave the European Union by Halloween collapse, and his deal repeatedly trounced by furious MPs. After an emergency session in Parliament on Saturday to attempt to hurriedly pass the deal, an amendment by a Conservative MP to allow a longer period of scrutiny passed, forcing the prime minister to send a letter to Brussels requesting an extension to the Brexit withdrawal date. Theatrics ensued: Johnson refused to sign it, briefing to a handful of gullible journalists that the letter was photocopied. This was pure tantrum for the optics — lawyers confirmed the lack of a handwritten signature meant nothing legally, and the claim that it was a photocopy was a simple lie, designed to show a lack of respect and willful obstreperousness.

On Tuesday, two votes in quick succession did for the government’s plans to rush the deal through Parliament by Thursday: the first passed the bill onto the next stage of scrutiny, but the crucial vote came next, rejecting the government’s timetable — meaning it was nigh on impossible to push the deal through Parliament by the deadline. Johnson now had to concede an extension was inevitable and confirmed to MPs that he was pausing the legislation to ratify the deal until the EU had responded confirming it would grant an extension. Number 10 had threatened to call an election if the timetable was felled, and Labour had previously stated that once a no-deal Brexit was averted, they would happily fight the Conservatives at the polls. All eyes are now on the EU leaders: if they grant an extension through January 31, 2020, a pre-Christmas election is likely. If later, an early spring election is on the cards.

Whatever the outcome, the campaign styles and focuses are already emerging. In terms of leadership, the Conservatives under Johnson’s tenure have been haphazard and short-termist. Each vote is treated as a self-contained war, with casualties always falling on the Conservative side. Johnson has won few votes, two in total, and lost every important battle in the House of Commons. One of the most foolish moves taken was to expel twenty-one Tory MPs who rebelled against the government, leaving a sizable number of politicians adrift and no longer beholden to the party’s disciplinary mechanisms. What was described as a bold and decisive action by Johnson turned out to be a major error: many of them subsequently voted against the government, and were freed to attack the party in the media and speak their mind more openly.

But rather than ascertaining Johnson’s error, the media expected the unusual move to become the status quo: journalists queried why Labour weren’t promising to expel every MP who voted in opposition to the Labour whip. On the radio time and again, shadow chancellor John McDonnell stated that he and Jeremy Corbyn would be contacting each MP who might consider rebelling, asking them to change their mind. This was dismissed as weak by the Right, while opposition leaders entertained conspiracy theories that Labour secretly wanted the Conservatives to succeed. Corbyn and McDonnell’s response that their leadership was about consensus rather than threats was dismissed as deceitful: the fact that Labour had rarely expelled any rebels in decades was ignored, and Johnson’s unusual behavior suddenly accepted as the only acceptable political discipline, as though the collective political memory of the media about the norms of British politics had been wiped.

That the important votes — on the Letwin Amendment and the debate timetable — were won with far fewer Labour rebels than predicted was barely acknowledged. The Labour whipping performance was impressive, working far more effectively than the press had envisaged.

Conservative short-termism will also carry over into the election: the Tories will fight on Brexit and Brexit alone, arguing that Johnson will “deliver Brexit” and then everyone can “move on” to other issues. Official party social media posts have heavily pushed this messaging, through slogans and graphics but also straightforward lies: immediately after the Tuesday votes, the Conservatives claimed the deal had passed (it had simply moved to the next stage of scrutiny), and that Labour had voted to delay the bill (they had simply voted for a different timetable; Johnson himself paused the bill).

We know also that the prime minister himself has no qualms about lying, historically or in the present: repeatedly, he has claimed this week that the Brexit deal means there will be no customs checks between Britain and Northern Ireland, when the deal itself states there will. The Tories are relying on a voting populace that is so fatigued by talk of Brexit, they will vote for any party that promises an exit, and have been veering to the right in an attempt to circumvent the single-issue Brexit Party hoovering up their voters. Johnson is also used to receiving far less scrutiny and skepticism from the UK media than Labour — particularly Corbyn and McDonnell — and his tactic now appears to be to openly lie, publicize deliberate untruths, and assume rightly that far more people will see his original statement than any correction or debunking.

For Labour, the game-play is far more complex: their Brexit plan — to negotiate a new deal and put it to the public in a referendum with an option of remaining instead — is straightforward despite media claims to the contrary, but it also acknowledges that the public is still split on the issue. While the Conservatives and Brexit Party are appealing exclusively to those who voted Leave, and the Liberal Democrats squarely trying to drum up support among hardline Europhiles, Labour has been developing a comprehensive policy agenda that recognizes people vote on a huge array of issues, and that a culture war over EU membership isn’t the sole reason motivating their votes in a general election. The press has been derisive about Labour’s chances of winning a general election, claiming their Brexit policy is impossible to fathom (note that it took me twenty words to describe it above), and that Brexit is all that motivates voters. Some Labour MPs have also been briefing against the leadership and some are insistent they won’t vote for an election.

But an election is hardly sewn up, for myriad reasons. The rules around broadcasting become tighter during elections, and Labour tend to get a fairer hearing during campaign periods, which drastically improved the party’s poll ratings in 2017. If, as looks near certain, the Brexit Party will campaign on a betrayal narrative aimed at the Conservatives and particularly the prime minister, they could split the vote and Labour could find itself edging ahead in some marginal Tory seats.

The Conservatives tend to struggle to find anywhere near as many campaign volunteers as they need during election periods and remain nervous about Momentum’s vast size and savvy. Five weeks is also a relatively long time in campaigning terms: both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are hoping focusing heavily on Brexit will net them votes, but voters are interested in the National Health Service, schools, the environment, transport, and the economy. If they have far less to say on these issues, Labour could convince many that they have sunk much more thought and consideration into a blueprint for a functional democracy and economy, while the other parties will appear as little more than short-termist chancers leaning on slogans.

Half the country is itching for an election, compared to a quarter who are opposed. Parliament remains deadlocked when it comes to Brexit, and an election appears the best possibility of breaking that logjam and moving forward, whichever route is taken. The EU’s decision on the timing of an extension should determine whether an election comes this year, or next, and the country should know by the end of this week. But the outcome of an election is far more uncertain than Boris Johnson may think, and even advisors in 10 Downing Street are themselves nervous. Labour probably have the best chance of winning, despite the usual criticisms, if they remain focused on broad politics, presenting a radical vision of a very different country, and reject the negative culture war the Brexit-obsessed parties will focus upon.