Making social science accessible

26 Jul 2019

Politics and Society

UK-EU Relations

In the 2017 general election Theresa May’s slogan was ‘strong and stable leadership in the national interest.’ It is probably fair to say that there is a broad consensus that May was not entirely successful in delivering on that promise, seeing her leave Downing Street with terrible approval ratings.

The question now is whether her successor will be any more successful than her in delivering on his promise, repeated endlessly by his supporters, to ‘Deliver Brexit, Unite the Country, Defeat Jeremy Corbyn’ – DUD for short (‘energise the country’ was a late addition and so will not form part of this discussion).

So, how likely is it that Prime Minister Johnson will be able to score a hat-trick?

Deliver Brexit

Despite Johnson’s rejection of ‘the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters’ it is difficult to see how he will manage to deliver a ‘new deal, a better deal’ between now and 31 October. The EU27 have emphatically stated that with the red lines set out by May (leaving the single market and customs union, and an end to free movement), which Johnson is sticking with, the current Withdrawal Agreement is the only game in town.

However, the Irish Backstop is an integral part of that deal, and Johnson has declared that ‘the problem is really fundamental. It [the backstop] needs to come out.’ Johnson is relying on ‘alternative arrangements’ based on ‘a wealth of solutions’ and ‘abundant, abundant technical fixes’, the details of which have so far proven elusive (and may indeed be illusive as well). If the new government was to change those red lines, options perhaps open up, but that would be the kind of U-turn only someone like, say, Boris Johnson would be capable of.

However, the problem is not just the clashing red lines of the UK and the EU27. Johnson has inherited May’s near impossible parliamentary landscape. Dependent on the DUP to achieve a wafer thin majority, Johnson has next to no wiggle room – as May found to her cost as she tried in vain to pass her Withdrawal Agreement. For all the change in the executive brought about by Johnson’s arrival in Number 10, the legislature remains untouched (apart from an influx to the backbenches of former ministers, newly relieved of collective responsibility).

Johnson’s chief problem is that any deal he (very probably will not) be able to negotiate with the EU27 is likely to be too Remain for Leavers, and too Leave for Remainers. Considering the current parliamentary arithmetic, the size of any rebellion needed to defeat a Boris Deal in the face of almost guaranteed rejection by the opposition is so small as to make it virtually inconceivable that Johnson will be able to marshal a majority for anything he brings back from Brussels.

This leaves Johnson with only two other options: no deal or a general election. Just as there is no majority in favour of almost any conceivable deal, so there is no majority for no deal. However, the legal default is still that the UK leaves the EU on 31 October 2019. A parliamentary decision of some kind has to be made for that to change – which has so far not been forthcoming. It is entirely possible that through sheer parliamentary deadlock and/or procedural shenanigans the clock simply runs down to a no deal Brexit.

In short, Deliver is possible, but difficult, and no deal looks more likely than a deal.

Unite the Country

Johnson’s claim to be able to ‘unite the country’ is probably the least likely of DUD. Johnson himself is a divisive character and is not held in high esteem by the general public. A majority found him ‘incompetent’ (53 percent), ‘putting on an act’ (55 percent), ‘untrustworthy’ (58 percent), and ‘out of touch’ (63 percent), with the remaining roughly evenly split between the positive opposite of those categories and ‘don’t know’. In the same poll 42 percent of respondents would place him in Slytherin – none of which paints a picture of someone destined to be the Unifier in Chief.

In addition, the idea that there is a conclusion to the Brexit process that will act as a unifying force is doubtful. Ignoring ‘don’t knows’, 50 percent would currently (as of 24 July) want to stay in the EU, 18 percent leave with a deal, and 32 percent leave with no deal – making an even split between Remain and Leave, and a 64 (no deal) to 36 (deal) split amongst leavers. In addition, the UK is equally split on people’s willingness to compromise, with 53 per cent expressing some willingness, and 47 percent not willing (again excluding ‘don’t knows). Finally, very few of those saying they voted in 2016 have changed their minds on how they would vote in any new referendum.

In short, on the issue of Brexit, the UK is not really in a ‘unite’ kinda mood, a state of mind which has been remarkably consistent since the referendum. Obviously, that might change – not sure why, but it might – and maybe Johnson’s optimism and energy will do the trick (although see above), but the signs are not good. Therefore, Johnson’s prospects of success here look vanishingly small.

Defeat Jeremy Corbyn

This is where things get really interesting, although not necessarily in Johnson’s favour. As on Brexit, voters are massively split in their voting choices. A youGov poll from the days around Johnson’s move to Downing Street showed Conservatives on 25 percent, Liberal Democrats on 23 percent, Labour on 19 percent and the Brexit Party on 17 percent.

Whilst first past the post makes predicting the outcome from such a four way split virtually impossible, the consensus seems to be that it is ‘highly unlikely that either the Conservatives or Labour would be able to win an overall majority, or even come close to one.’ In the UK context ‘winning’ has typically meant acquiring a single party majority. That kind of winning is currently not a very likely prospect.

However, it is worth noting that Johnson went for DUD, not DUW. There is a significant difference between ‘Defeating’ (Corbyn) and Winning (a single party majority). Presumably ‘defeating’ Jeremy Corbyn would mean keeping him out of Downing Street. Combining Labour place in the polls, and Jo Swinson’s reluctance to work with Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, makes the last part of DUD entirely plausible.

Considering their respective stances on Brexit, it is highly unlikely that Swinson would support Johnson as Prime Minister. However, it is certainly possible that an overall majority might be found between the Conservatives, the Brexit Party and the DUP. However, with the Conservative Party’s internal divisions over Brexit and the DUP’s focus on maintaining the ‘Union’ (of the UK) over any other concerns, that version of Defeat Corbyn would in no way help Deliver Brexit – but Defeat Corbyn it would be. Therefore, the final D of DUD is probably Johnson’s most achievable pledge.

All told, the answer to ‘will Johnson deliver DUD’ is, ‘possibly’ (but the path is extremely narrow and complicated), ‘no’ (just, no), or ‘likely’ (but then what?).

By Dr Robin Pettitt, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Kingston University London.


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