The Only Way for the Conservatives to Win on Brexit is to Lose

June 11, 2019
June 15, 2019
UK Politics

I have yet to comment on the Conservative Leadership contest for two major reasons. First, I do not feel that it matters all that much. The options open to any potential leader are the same highly limited set of undesirable choices. Whatever the credibility a potential leader enters office with among either centrist voters or Brexit-party defectors will be obliterated before any benefit can be accrued from the voters when they either request another Article 50 extension from the EU in October or temporarily crash out.This context brings up the second reason. I find the whole process vaguely embarrassing. Almost all internal party leadership campaigns involve a degree of free-riding on policy. In fact, Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 owed a lot of this willingness to challenge rival Republican candidates on the by then decade old tradition of offering imaginary tax cuts and foreign wars to the selectorate.

While the British media has been unusually aggressive in pushing back against the lack of realism in the policy proposals on display by the contenders, less focus has been placed on the extremely dangerous situation in which the Conservative party finds itself at the moment. Yes, there is extensive focus on the party’s poor poll ratings and catastrophic results in the European elections, both of which made only dropping to 22% from the 46%won in 2017 look like a surprisingly strong performance in the Peterborough by-election. But the poll ratings are a symptom, not a cause of the party's problems, and ironically, the position of the party would have been far better had the Brexit party won in Peterborough. At least in that case the threat the party faces would be clear, as would the remedy. The Conservatives would face the prospect of replacement by the Brexit party, and the obvious move would be to absorb it.

Instead, the Peterborough result, when combined with a closer reading of the European totals, reinforced how much of a dead-end that approach is in the long-run, even if pursuing it may be necessary in the shorter term. The great question for any party trying to break into the British first-past-the-post electoral system is whether it aims to be a spoiler or a supplanter. A spoiler does not aim to win seats, and very often is incapable of doing so. What it can do, however, is draw off enough votes to force the other parties to move in its direction. A supplanter seeks to replace one of the two major parties. The Labour party challenge to the Liberals in the 1920s was that in the aftermath of the Lloyd George coalition and amidst divisions as to whether the Liberals were center-left or center-right party, Labour was a more viable candidate to occupy the role of center-left option within the political system. The Social Democratic-Liberal alliance in the 1980s sought to reverse this feat, but split over whether its objective was to provide anon-Thatcherite center-right option or a non-Michael Foot center-left alternative with the result that it failed to do either.

The Brexit party, despite some gestures by Nigel Farage towards being a big-tent “Brexit” party rather than an ideologically right-wing one such as running Clare Fox for the European parliament and releasing few policies, in effect committed itself to replacing the Tories. This was ultimately its only strategic choice once it made the bid to enter domestic politics. Farage has too long a historical association with the right, and the activist base of Labour, even in areas where its voters are more split, is militantly Remain. But at Peterborough Brexit peaked. In a seat which voted 62.1% to Leave the EU, where the combined Conservative/UKIp vote had topped 50%twice, with a Labour candidate facing charges of anti-semitism, the Brexit party failed to win. Yes 28% was impressive, and Labour’s 31% indicated problems for Corbyn, but ultimately the Alliance’s 25.4% in 1983 was impressive as well. It left a much more serious question to be answered. If the Brexit party could not win in Peterborough in these circumstances where could it win?And the answer to that definitely does not add up to the 249 seats electoral calculus is projecting based on current polling. Arguably, it may not even amount to a tenth of that.That, in fact ,is the conclusion Farage's own former researcher in Brussels reaches, that the Brexit party has utterly failed to attract any new elements into the electorate and is running on discontented Tory defectors.

Willingly or not, the Brexit party is now spoiler.Like UKIP, it possess an enormous ability to damage the Conservative party, but that power is purely negative. In the European elections, it failed to attract anywhere near the number of anti-Tory Brexit voters from Labour, the SNP or the Liberal Democrats necessary to make up for the votes the Tories lost to the Liberal Democrats and Greens, and for those inclined to write off the European results, the same was true in Peterborough. In 2015, the UKIP and Conservative vote combined for 55.6%. In the by-election, the total for UKIP, the Brexit party, and the Conservatives was 51.5%. Even in a Brexit-heavy heartland, where 62% backed leaving the EU, the issue is repelling rather than attracting voters in comparison to the Cameron years. And the Conservatives won the seat in 2015 despite UKIP winning 16%.

This does not mean that the Conservatives should not be worried about those defectors. They can of course cost the party an election, if not more than one, albeit they didn't manage that feat in 2015. But the Conservatives can rest assured that there are no votes up for grabs. Those normally right-leaning voters who have left the Tories for the Brexit party will eventually return as long as the Conservatives are the only viable center-right option for government, while those voters who are not naturally right-leaning, will, as 2017 showed, never vote Tory in any case. Having not voted Conservative Brexit, and having voted Labour in 2017 after Brexit, they would have little reason to vote Conservative after a resolution of Brexit.

To be told that a "problem" will fix itself is little comfort to anyone. Just an ill individual who visits a doctor with a viral infection only to be told that antibiotics or other medication would be of no use. It is true, but the inclination to "do something" is great. Even more so when the illness may be fatal to individual careers if not the party.. It is only to note the obvious for leading Tories to observe that the party cannot hope to win an election when the Brexit party is polling at 20% or above, much less leading it. That the Tories as a party may be best off losing the next election in the long run is a poor answer. Rather there is a desire to go for a quick fix.

he obvious answer is that defections to the Brexit party occurred by and large because the Conservatives failed to accomplish Brexit. Hence, the answer is to carry out Brexit and thereby win back those voters. That this analysis lines up with the preferences and desires of Conservative activists and members, or at least those who haven’t withdrawn from politics over the last few years, all too often taking their money with them, is an added advantage.

In reality, however it solves nothing. Or on its own it solves nothing. Because what precisely would delivering Brexit look like?

1.      Even if one ignores all the procedural hurdles to a No-Deal, WTO Brexit in October, and assumes the best case outcome –limited disruption, a containable economic hit, international isolation, it leaves the question of “what now?” Gratitude is a rare commodity in politics.In 2017, millions who had voted for Brexit in 2016 gave their votes to Jeremy Corbyn’s domestic agenda. If Brexit is “resolved” what will keep any of them in the Conservative column. Labour will not have blocked Brexit, or at least not successfully. At the same time, those on the other side of the issue have perfectly attractive home in the Liberal Democrats. And Parliament, especially if sidelined to push through a “No Deal” outcome, would likely take revenge by voting down the government and triggering a new election when advantageous.

2.      By contrast, Theresa May was outdone by accepting an extension. Whatever honeymoon a new Tory leader gets from Brexit party supporters, it will end the moment they accept a further extension. Hence why many of the leading contenders are pledging to leave no later than October31, but if they cannot pass a deal and cannot no deal what other option do theyhave?

3.      Some speculation has occurred that hard brexiters might turn to a referendum as a way out of the conundrum. That is to make the error of assuming the issue is still being determined by pragmatic strategic considerations and not by emotional polarisation. The option of a referendum, while not intrinsically a proxy for Remaining in the EU, has been so utterly associated with advocates of Remain as a means of cancelling Brexit that it is impossible for it to be seen as anything other than a mechanism to accomplish that end. The Tory party whipping for such an outcome would suffer almost if not just as much as simply revoking Article 50.

4. Finally, almost all Brexit contingencies assume that the Conservative government is in good shape absent Brexit. But the evidence from the 2017 campaign, where Brexit was largely neutralised tells a different story. Whether the product of a media narrative, or of reality, there is an increasing perception that austerity has inflicted enormous damage on British society, exacerbated by the divisions created by Brexit. Even leading Conservatives seem to have conceded this, most prominently Theresa May, but there is little sign that the party has any answers. What answers they have depend on the perception that they can better manage a move away from austerity and towards increased spending. Here, however, Brexit also is a problem, in that the perception that the Conservative government was too incompetent to manage Brexit now extends to a general perception of unfitness for government. Boris Johnson might appear to be the right man to carry through Brexit, but does anyone think he will come off as the right man to end austerity? With his promises of tax cuts for high earners? There is an irony that even if Boris were to somehow "accomplish his task", ie. pull off a miracle regarding Brexit, he would only then succeed in moving the political debate onto issues where he is perhaps the worst messenger the Conservatives can put forward.

Ironically there is a way out. If the Conservative party cannot afford to deliver Brexit and can not afford not to do so, the only option is to try to deliver it and fail. That would mean setting course for a WTO Brexit, seeking a confrontation with Parliament, losing that confrontation,and then being defeated in the subsequent election. A Labour government would almost certainly have to legislate for a second referendum, albeit perhaps between a new “Labour Brexit” and Remain, and this would allow the Tories to attack the betrayal without having to block it. At the same time, the Brexit party, as a spoiler, would take the blame for dividing the Pro-Leave vote, and letting Brexit be defeated.

The interests of the Conservative party are ironically best served not by finding a candidate who can win the next election but one who can lose it. Finding themselves in office on October 31st, 2019,guarantees a disaster. Being out dodges the issue and allows rebuilding.

It is worth noting that parties are historically relatively successful if they retain a core identity, even in the case of disaster. Labour survived the Great Depression as did the US republicans. By contrast, parties that have attempted to seek quick solutions even they cannot defend often implode. No better example exist than the Canadian Progressive Conservatives, who in 1993 fell from 162 seats to a mere 2. Ironically, while they had been polling almost as badly as they ended for two years, they actually began the campaign in a tie, having chosen as their new leader an untested figure solely on the basis of media narrative over her more experienced rival(who was one of two of the party's MPs to survive). While this worked in the short-run, the contradictions of the approach and the weaknesses of the choice of someone incapable of leading the party or serving as PM became clear over the campaign. The following chart of polls should act as a warning to those who will too quickly embrace the prospect of a polling indian summer for the Conservatives under Boris Johnson. If they do not think he is fit to be PM, and everyone else they know does not think so, then they should realise it will come out.


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