Polly Toynbee – The Guardian
Across the country, opponents of a no-deal Brexit are marshalling forces to stymie the PM
‘Johnson has just boxed himself into a corner where his own policy is confusing, duplicitous and rightly untrusted by both sides of his Brexit-split party.’ Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP
This is war. That’s the ludicrous intended message of summoning parliament to sit on a Saturday, echoing the eve of battle in 1939. It also recalls the Suez crisis – and that’s a more apt Brexit comparison, this maverick act of hubris, the last hurrah of empire, leading to national humiliation.
The Saturday theatrical show is meant to shine a spotlight on the scene where Boris Johnson is forced by traitors to sign a surrender letter to the EU enemy to beg for more time. But wait! In the last act the people will set our hero free from these parliamentary villains when a general election resoundingly acclaims him as the leader to take them out of the EU and into the promised land.
But while that election looks certain, a Johnson victory does not at all. The Labour shadow cabinet this week expressed rumbling nerves – low in the polls, their leader even lower – after a conference overshadowed by continuing left faction plotting. Despite all that, look to the other side and see a party in a far greater existential crisis.
Johnson frames this as the Brexit showdown election, yet he has just boxed himself into a corner where his own policy is confusing, duplicitous and rightly untrusted by both sides of his Brexit-split party. He has just promised his 80 One Nation moderates that his manifesto will pledge a deal, with no deal only as a default. But there is no deal for him to sell, however much he blusters that the EU will yield to him once he is victorious. It won’t, and it will be clear throughout the election if he tries to outline some fantasy settlement, while Nigel Farage shouts for a “Clean Brexit now” – there can be no more flannelling. In fear of Farage, watch Johnson follow Dominic Cummings’ lead, converting the Tories into a no-deal Brexit party. Do that and he faces instant schism, with walkouts not just by those 80 MPs but also propelling a large slice of his One Nation voters into the eager arms of the Liberal Democrats.
Against these no dealers, Jeremy Corbyn and his party are united and authentically passionate, in a way they haven’t been for years. Corbyn can convincingly admit he was never an EU enthusiast, but like many who saw the options unfold, he stands unequivocally against the great no-deal disaster. Vote for us, and we give you the final say: remain, or a deal that keeps us in the customs union – as near as damn it in the single market – with no border in Ireland. Vote Tory and it’s no deal. Vote Liberal Democrat and it’s an undemocratic revoke.
The danger is in splitting the remain vote. Everything depends on remainers and progressives voting tactically with rigid discipline in each of 150 target seats to keep Johnson out, opting for the best-chance Labour, Lib Dem, Green, SNP or Plaid Cymru candidate.
Labour people may jibe at Jo Swinson’s behaviour. Why is she so rudely adamant that she would never back a Corbyn-led government, not even as interim? For the good reason that grown-up Labour supporters need to understand: the seats she can win are virtually all Tory ones and the soft Tory remainers she needs to woo would be frightened off if voting Lib Dem looked like a proxy Corbyn vote. She needs to be as brutally aggressive towards Labour as possible – and Labour people just have to suck it up: the only hope of Labour being the bigger party is for Swinson to win every Tory seat she can.
Any top-down deal between the parties in an election would be fatal – but local campaigners in both parties are already targeting their resources wisely: in places like St Ives and Lewes, Labour campaigns elsewhere. In Beaconsfield, the Lib Dems are preparing to stand down for Dominic Grieve’s run as an independent. Swinson will surely never go into coalition with anyone again, but in a hung parliament, with Labour the biggest party, she would clearly agree to back Labour policies that the Lib Dems favour, and block those they oppose.
Johnson and Cummings will have their grid plan for each day of the election – it will be Brexit, Brexit, Brexit all the way. But on strategy and tactics their record so far is 100% failure. In a five-week, 24/7 media campaign, stuff happens. Unwelcome subjects spring out unexpectedly. The public confronts candidates with real-life questions: Johnson, the supposed people-pleasing great campaigner, has proved awkward and alarmed when confronted with anyone but adorers seeking selfies. Will they try to keep him in bubblewrap, like Theresa May in 2017, scuttling in the back door to closed venues packed with party workers, with no questions from journalists?
He pretends to want to talk about the NHS, the police and hospitals – but so will the people and he won’t like what he hears after a decade of stricken services. Nor will voters trust his airy promises of more money when all around everything appears to be getting worse – NHS waiting times lengthening as local authorities set their threadbare budgets for even deeper cuts.
Corbyn, on the other hand, campaigns well. He needs a better speechwriter to frame the Brexit debate beyond repetitive mantras on environmental and workers rights. But on both Brexit and state-of-the-nation policies, he has the strongest platform.
No election has ever been so uncertain, says Professor Rob Ford, political scientist. The irony is that our first past the post system, supposed to deliver certainty, is the most destabilising possible in a four-party landscape. “Tiny shifts in votes can upset an avalanche of seats, with no relation between the national vote and number of seats won. It’s a butterfly effect, a small flap of wings setting off chaos down the line,” says Ford. Combine that with this week’s British Election Study finding far a more volatile electorate and you get uncertainty that makes all current opinion polls almost meaningless.
May entered her 2017 election 20 points ahead and concluded it by losing her majority – so much for her “strong and stable” campaign. Never underestimate Boris Johnson’s ability to crash and burn whenever forced to confront the real world, the EU or the entire electorate.
- Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist