Playing Brexit to the cheap seats

Playing Brexit to the cheap seats

by Miles Saltiel
article from Thursday 5, September, 2019

LAST NIGHT'S lost votes leave a sense that Boris has lost his way. He has no reason to blame Remainers for their stagey reluctance to accept his word. After all, this follows Cummings’ boast that an election couldn’t stop no-deal; and Gove’s repeated public failure to commit to obeying the law. Maybe these incidents were carelessness, maybe they were intended to ramp up the crisis? They have certainly done the latter. Even so, all Boris has to do is concede that an election campaign will not affect the Benn bill’s trigger-date and Corbyn will have little choice but to call for (actually permit) it.

Then Boris is back on track, with the Benn Act serving as a quartering on his battle-standard. This will combine with goodies all round, together with selected commitments to please the political wonks, with luck also tripping up the opposition. Expect, for example, promises to enact the long-overdue constituency boundary changes, intended to wrong-foot Labour; and to repeal the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, doing the same for the Lib Dems. 

If timing permits, it will make sense for Boris to campaign on either a reversion to the 31 October deadline; or - on the basis of keeping “no-deal” on the table - negotiating to the extended deadline following the enactment of the Benn bill. He will be relying on the electorate’s impatience, encouraged by polling data showing that the public is turning their exasperation upon the Remain camp.

At the beginning of the week, Blair made much of the elephant trap of an election that permits no deal during the campaigning period. That’s because remaining is more important to him than a Labour government, especially one under the current leader. Corbyn is understandably more worried about a process that bulldozes him into opposing the Brexit which most of his seats voted for.

We may take it that the hard-edged style taken up by the Government stems from a judgement of what plays well in the one and nines (in old money). This raises the stakes further: failure will discredit everyone associated with the play and sink HMS Brexit for a generation; even success will leave a bad taste for as far forward as we can see.

A few days ago, lawyers acting for the Government in the Scots’ courts disclosed paperwork to the litigants objecting to prorogation. The documents included a menu of options from legislative counsel, Nicky da Costa, sent on 15 August to the Prime Minister. He replied to approve prorogation, the following day sending her a handwritten note that it was no big deal as “the whole September session is a rigmarole to show the public that MPs are earning their crust”. 

This seems to tell us a couple of things: that as early as mid-August – possibly from the outset – Team Boris had given up on events altering Commons sentiment; and (less certainly – see below) that they failed to anticipate the fury of the blow-back. If that’s right, so much for war-gaming, let alone the vast strategic brain of Cummings, who may instead be rushing to the sacrificial block some months sooner than expected.

On this view, Cummings’ hubristic remark about an election failing to frustrate Brexit has also come back to bite his boss in the bum. We see this from Corbyn’s refusal to support a vote of no confidence until the Commons passes the Benn Extension Bill. 

In the event, however, Boris will huff and puff but need not be that upset. Corbyn’s stance has the effect of placing him and his party more squarely in the Remain camp, drawing out the partisan distinction for electoral purposes. Boris will simply run on a promise to repeal Benn’s bill. Perhaps this means that I am doing Cummings’ giant brain a disservice as this was the wheeze all along?

Certainly YouGov’s most recent poll (fieldwork Tuesday and Monday) shows the Government increasing its numbers from week to week, still ten points over Labour but now up to 35 per cent with the smaller parties getting squeezed. The poll also shows a marginal preference for no-deal over an extension; a pronounced aversion to another election (save in Scotland and among Labour voters and the very young); and a strongly preponderant view (particularly in Wales and the English provinces and among older voters and C2DEs) that British democracy is being disrespected by Remain rather than Leave politicians and MPs. For the first time since the last election, Electoral Calculus is predicting an outright Tory majority, though this should be treated with reserve as the site overestimated Tory seats last time round.

With an election close to inevitable, what of the famous £100m “government information programme” over the campaigning period? If the programme is suspended, it has the effect of cementing the loss of Boris’s 31 October deadline, whether he wins the election or not. If the programme is kept up, Remainers will go livid, claiming that the Government is stealing the vote and – should Boris be returned – enabling them to decline “loser’s consent” indefinitely. At best this postpones any exercise to bind the nation’s wounds. At worst, it augurs more fauda (Hebrew: “chaos”).

Is it out of order to feel sorry for the de-whipped Tories? Undoubtedly, some of them are getting a poor reward for a lifetime of service, though others only for a lifetime of being a grandson or three years of principled obstruction. Their defenestration leaves the party bridling at a parliamentary purge more ruthless than anything attempted by Labour. On the other hand, it looks like the polling data and focus groups are telling Boris that ruthlessness plays well in the cheap seats, which he hopes are sufficiently well occupied to get him home.

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