The consensus amongst political commentators is that in obtaining the Queen’s consents to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, Boris Johnson’s is planning for a general election. Leaving aside the fact that the Tories are prepared to commit a constitutional outrage in order to shore-up their discredited and undemocratic Brexit policy, I remain unconvinced that this is really what Boris wants. I believe that Boris’ disingenuous action is an attempt to avoid having to go to the country before, or shortly after Brexit because he cannot be certain that he will win an overall majority. Of course he could be forced into an election by a vote of no confidence – something that his action has made more likely – and if we are to believe Jeremy Corbyn this would be his preferred course of action. But Jeremy’s position on Brexit has always been cloaked in ambiguity and like Boris, he must weigh the likelihood of achieving an overall majority.
If the latest opinion polls are any guide the most likely outcome of an election prior to the 31st October is another hung parliament. Boris’ ‘do-or-die’ approach to Brexit has, as intended, appealed to some – but by no means all – Leave voters who abandoned the Tories for the Brexit Party, but in doing so he has alienated the Remain portion of the electorate which probably now amounts to a majority. Unfortunately the Remain vote remains split – largely between Labour and the Liberal Democrats – and under our First-Past-the-Post system this would appear to give Boris the advantage. But matters are not so simple. A no-deal Brexit is not something all Leave voters are prepared to accept – listen to the concerns of Leave voting farmers – and it will not be the only issue on voters’ minds. Will voters believe – given his tract record – promises by Boris to spend heavily on the NHS, schools and the police? Or will they prefer the Labour party’s promises to put such policies in place?
By proroguing Parliament until the 14th October Boris may be hoping that he can avoid an election before the 31st October. This might see-off the Brexit party but it would mean going to the country as it is experiencing the chaos and economic costs of crashing out of the EU. The Tories would be vulnerable in the many Conservative-Liberal Democrat marginal seats and who would bet on Scotland returning a single Tory MP – the more so with the departure of the popular Ruth Davidson. True a national swing in the Remain vote to the Liberal Democrats might allow the Tories to win back some marginal seats in places like Kensington but against this I cannot see the Tories making much headway in traditional Labour voting northern constituencies post Brexit.
In such a situation Labour could win more seats than the Tories – even an outright majority. I cannot see the Tories winning an outright majority in a no-deal, post Brexit election and even if they were in a position to form a minority government they would face not only the daily prospect of a confidence vote but also at a time that would maximise Labour’s chances of an Parliamentary majority. If, as all independent experts seem agreed, the year following a no deal Brexit would be one of economic turmoil and possibly recession Boris’ tenure might prove to be the shortest in living memory. The Tory party aside such a situation would not only further reduce the UK’s reputation for competent governance it would severely exacerbate the social divisions already wreaked by Brexit.
Despite all his bluster – not to mention embarrassing subservience to President Trump – I suspect Mr Johnson wants his tenure as PM to deliver him a more positive reputation than his immediate predecessors. Only Jeremy Corbyn and his dwindling band of hard-left naysayers, would like Boris and the Tory party to be saddled with the chaos and economic costs of a no-deal Brexit. But it is also clear that Mr Johnson has no negotiating strategy – he has yet to set out proposals for Britain’s long term relations with the EU – only the pathetic hope that if he ramps up expenditure on no-deal planning alongside proroguing Parliament the EU will, at the last moment, blink and withdraw the Backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement. Of course Boris might privately accept what has been obvious since the referendum; namely, that the EU will never undermine the integrity of the single market. In which case it maybe a ruse in the hope that the EU will take the blame for the consequences of no-deal.
The logic of the forgoing is, I suspect, the reason why the leaders of the opposition parties have chosen – at least for the moment – to forgo a vote of confidence in favour of an attempt to pass legislation blocking no-deal – something that has now become more difficult but, with luck, not impossible. That said, even if they can find a way to take over the Parliamentary agenda and pass legislation forcing the government to ask for an Article 50 extension – before it is prorogued – this will not be sufficient. The EU has made clear that there must be some purpose to a further extension and in the absence of a general election all that is left is a People’s Vote. In short the best hope of avoiding a no-deal is for Parliament to legislate to hold a referendum. I am cynical enough to suggest that this is what Johnson wants and in choosing the route of a constitutional outrage he will be able to claim his hand has been forced. The alternative explanation is that Boris has become Britain’s Trump, believing it is acceptable to blatantly replace integrity with buffoonery and honesty with guile. Such behaviour will not end well for Mr Johnson. As an unelected prime minister leading a minority government, acting in a way that he would describe as undemocratic if done by the opposition brings himself, his government and the country into disrepute.