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31 Jul 2019

Politics and Society

Boris Johnson won the Tory leadership by promising party members anything and everything they wanted to hear.

It’s also pretty obvious from the flurry of splash-the-cash policy announcements he’s already made that he’s going to try to pull off the same trick with the 99.9 per cent of the electorate who, while they didn’t have a say in him becoming prime minister, may well be asked to vote very soon on whether he should carry on in the job.

Whether that general election takes place before or after the UK has left the EU is anyone’s guess, but it’s worth thinking through.

The best-case scenario for Boris Johnson surely remains that he somehow persuades the 27 EU countries to make changes to the deal sufficient to squeeze it through the House of Commons. The latter – let alone the former – won’t be easy; but it may be possible.

As leader of the Leave campaign, Johnson is, after all, much better placed than ‘reluctant Remainer’ Theresa May to persuade his Brexiteer ultras that he’ll get them what they want when he sits down in Brussels to negotiate the famous ‘future relationship’. And there may still be enough ‘Labour Leavers’ to compensate for any ‘Spartans’ on his own back (and indeed front) bench who won’t take yes for an answer under any circumstances.

Once we’re out, Johnson can then carry on promising all things to all men and, in the spring, go to the country hoping that the wave of relief – and the sheer uselessness of his Labour opposite number – will see him swept back into Downing Street with a working (and maybe even a comfortable) majority.

If, however, it proves impossible to come to an agreement, and Westminster finds a way to block a no deal, then we’ll presumably see an election held sooner rather than later. Although Corbyn and co. would still be a factor in Johnson’s favour, that contest one wouldn’t be so easy to win – but difficult doesn’t mean impossible.

For a start, an awful lot of people – not just hard-core Leavers – would buy the argument that Brussels was to blame for us leaving without a deal because of its sheer bloody-mindedness and intransigence. And if there’s one politician who is a sufficiently skilled populist to be able to frame an election as ‘the people vs. Parliament’ then it’s Boris Johnson.

An autumn election, however, would be much easier to win before rather than after the UK leaves the EU without a deal. After all, the disruption and dislocation that many experts are convinced will ensue are hardly likely to endear the government to a country suffering as a result.

There are going to be so many ‘make your mind up moments’ in the coming weeks and months and one of the biggest for Conservative MPs is this: would the damage done to the party’s reputation by their leader failing to fulfil his promise to get the UK out of the EU by 31 October be worse than the damage inflicted on it by the economic chaos that might ensue following a no deal Brexit?

It was a beautiful day yesterday but as I look out of my window today, the skies are dark, the thunder is booming and the rain is falling. Summer – even for the new sun king, Boris Johnson, won’t last forever. It never does.

By Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. This piece was originally published in Metro.


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