LONDON — Boris Johnson was tapped to become Britain’s new prime minister on Tuesday – chosen by the governing Conservative party because it firmly believes that he is an election winner who can prevent Labour’s hard-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, from getting to Downing Street.
But, despite his reputation as a man who can reach voters who don’t traditionally back the Tories, Johnson’s arrival at No.10 is no guarantee of victory over Corbyn. Indeed, the incoming prime minister’s hardline stance on Brexit may yet prove to be Labour’s best chance of winning an election which might come as early as this autumn.
Labour — roiled by allegations of anti-Semitism within its ranks and deeply divided over Brexit — has been spectacularly unsuccessful in capitalizing on the Conservatives’ woes as that party has tried to take Britain out of the European Union.
The past two months have seen Corbyn under immense political pressure. Labour badly under-performed in local elections in early May. A few weeks later, it won a mere 14 percent in elections to the European parliament, as the pro-EU Liberal Democrats pushed it into third place. And earlier this month the polling agency YouGov put Labour at 18% – its lowest rating since polling began in the 1940s, with less than half of those who voted for the party at the 2017 general election saying they would do so again. Corbyn himself has an approval rating of just 17%, with 75% dissatisfied with his performance — the lowest net score recorded by any opposition leader.
The Tories have had a similarly torrid time. Hit hard by the newly formed Brexit party, they polled just 8% in the European elections, helping to precipitate Theresa May’s resignation as prime minister.
But, as the Conservatives have gone about choosing their new leader over the past six weeks, the party has begun to recover lost ground, creeping back up in the polls as it eats into the Brexit party’s support.
After a leadership campaign littered with populist promises – tax cuts, new spending pledges, and calls for immigrants to learn English – the Tories hope that with Johnson in No.10, this recovery will continue.
There is certainly evidence to suggest it might. Conservative-supporting newspapers which have backed Johnson have trumpeted polls suggesting the new prime minister might be able to win a landslide election victory, giving the Tories a parliamentary majority of 140. Other polls forecast Johnson would win a more modest majority of 40, while surveys also suggest that he easily outranks Corbyn. When asked to choose, 51% of Brits saw Johnson as the most capable prime minister, against 33% who picked the Labour leader.
All this appears to confirm the public confidence in Johnson that led the Tories to install him as the new prime minister in No.10. That reputation was initially built on Johnson’s two victories a decade ago to become mayor of London, a heavily Labour city.
However, Johnson’s role as head of the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum – with its heavy appeal to those opposed to immigration – has subsequently turned him into a deeply divisive character.
His patchy record as foreign secretary, description of Muslim women wearing burkas as looking like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers,” and alleged ties to Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, further shredded his socially liberal reputation.
“The Brexit vote has incinerated his ability to woo metropolitan liberals,” The Economist magazine suggested recently. “Today he couldn’t win a vote to become dog-catcher in London, let alone mayor.”
Johnson and the Jews
The marked shift in Johnson’s reputation since he left City Hall shortly before the referendum is mirrored in the manner in which Jewish voters appear to view him.
He won strong backing from Jews in his two mayoral campaigns. His eight years as mayor saw close relations between Johnson and the community, which is heavily concentrated in London.
These were forged by a shared enemy: In 2008, Johnson ousted mayor Ken Livingstone, who had a toxic reputation among Jews even before his more recent comments about Hitler’s supposed affinity for Zionism. Johnson then defeated an attempted comeback by Livingstone four years later. Relations were further assisted by Johnson’s frequent attendance at communal events, strong stance against anti-Semitism, and opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
But his reputation among Jews appeared to take a substantial hit in the wake of the Brexit referendum. When he briefly toyed with the idea of running for leader in 2016, polls showed Jewish voters easily preferred May to Johnson.
Johnson will no doubt now strive to bolster his standing in the community. During the Tory leadership campaign he repeatedly attacked Corbyn over the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour party, pledged to maintain funding for security at Jewish venues and vowed that “wild horses wouldn’t keep me away” from visiting Israel as prime minister.
Crucially, though, his appeal to Jews rests on his insistence that only he can keep what he terms the “Hamas- and Hezbollah-supporting” Labour leader from Downing Street. “I have a lot of experience of defeating the London Labour left,” he reminded readers in an interview two weeks ago with the Jewish News.
Do or die
But Johnson’s confidence about his ability to beat Corbyn may be misplaced.
He has staked his premiership on the promise that “do or die” Britain will leave the EU on October 31. Unlike May, he has made clear that, if he can’t secure a better divorce agreement from Brussels than the UK negotiated over the past two years, he will pull the country out without a deal. Johnson’s “no deal” pledge has led to the Tories’ tentative recovery in the polls by driving down support for the Brexit party and reuniting the center-right vote. Johnson’s hopes of winning the snap election he has hinted he may call, and which aides are reportedly planning, rest on this strategy.
Johnson’s chances of negotiating a better deal over the next three months are, however, slim. The EU has insisted it won’t open the divorce deal, or withdrawal agreement, signed by May which was then heavily defeated three times in the House of Commons. A “no deal” Brexit thus seems increasingly likely.
But such a policy is fraught with political risk. With their Northern Irish Democratic Unionist party (DUP) allies, the Tories have a working majority of just three in the House of Commons. This looks set to be cut to two early next month, with the centrist Liberal Democrats heavily tipped to win a by-election in Wales.
To add to the difficult parliamentary arithmetic, a number of Tory MPs — including the outgoing Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond — have indicated that they’ll join the opposition parties to thwart any attempt by Johnson to leave the EU without a deal. Their concerns stem from fears, expressed by business groups and economic analysts, that a “no deal” would, in the words of one potential Tory rebel, cause “economic mayhem.”
The fragility of Johnson’s parliamentary position was graphically demonstrated last week even before he entered Downing Street when the House of Commons passed a motion that effectively stops the government from suspending parliament in the weeks before the planned October 31 exit date. The new prime minister has repeatedly refused to rule out such a suspension if MPs try to block his “no deal” Brexit plans. The scale of the government’s defeat — it lost by a sizeable 41 votes — and the fact that a number of May’s outgoing cabinet joined the Tory rebellion further increased speculation about an early poll.
Johnson’s tough stance may appear to be wooing back some of those who voted to leave the EU in the referendum and defected from the Tories to the Brexit party in the European elections. But the new prime minister’s willingness to contemplate a “no deal” Brexit does not appear to have wider public backing.
Polls indicate that only 28% of voters favor “no deal,” a figure that falls to only 8% among 18-24 year-old voters, among whom the Tories are already highly unpopular.
Given the deadlock in parliament and the opposition of a small, but potentially critical, group of Tory MPs to the new prime minister’s strategy, an election this autumn now seems in the cards.
That early poll could arise directly from Johnson’s leadership election pledge. If his government attempts to force a “no-deal” Brexit in October, it might lose a no-confidence vote in parliament — thus almost certainly triggering an election. Moreover, even if Johnson were to get his way and parliament doesn’t prevent a “no deal,” the resulting disruption and likely recession might lead his government, with its precarious parliamentary majority, to collapse, thus again precipitating an election.
“Both these scenarios are fairy likely,” believes Glen O’Hara, a professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University.
How likely is it for Labour to come out on top?
The battleground in that election may turn out to be very different from the campaign two years ago which resulted in Labour and the Tories winning a combined 82% share of the vote. The divisions in the country, and within the two main parties, have led to a splintering of the vote, with the Brexit party, Liberal Democrats, Labour, and the Conservatives all polling in a range of 18 to 24%.
The outcome of an election against such a backdrop is highly unpredictable. As Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, suggests: “It would be a brave man willing to predict the victory of either of the two supposedly main parties at the moment. We may find several parties in the mid-20% range, at which points all bets are off as to who would win how many seats and where.”
It would be a brave man willing to predict the victory of either of the two supposedly main parties at the moment
Peter Kellner, former president of the polling company YouGov, argues that while Labour’s current poll rating is “very weak,” if there is an early election “it is just possible that Jeremy Corbyn might end up as prime minister.”
But for that to happen, he cautions, four conditions would have to be met. First, Labour would need to campaign clearly as a party committed to keeping the UK in the EU, and thus win back many of the voters it has lost to the Liberal Democrats and, to some extent, the Greens. Two weeks ago, the party announced the latest shift in its Brexit policy, positioning itself to take such a stance in an early election.
Second, Kellner argues, there would have to be a lot of tactical voting by those “remain” voters who support Britain staying in the EU. Liberal Democrat voters, for instance, would need to back Labour in marginal seats where the party is the main contender against the Tories, while Labour supporters would need to lend their votes to the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish and Welsh nationalists where they were best placed to defeat the Tories.
Third, the Brexit party would have to take votes from the Tories in Conservative-held marginal seats. Although, Kellner argues, it is unlikely to win any seats, the Brexit party might siphon off enough voters from the Tories to throw such seats to the opposition parties.
Finally, Kellner believes that Labour’s “best hope” is it will emerge as the largest party in a hung parliament. To govern, though, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish nationalists, or possibly both, would need to form a coalition with Corbyn, or agree to a less formal agreement, such as the one the Conservatives and DUP negotiated after the 2017 election.
Other political analysts agree with Kellner that, despite its dire poll numbers, Labour might yet end up in government if there is an early election.
“The electoral system is extremely volatile and unpredictable with four parties in the mix,” says polling expert Lewis Baston. “Although Labour is not doing well in the polls, it would take a much smaller movement than happened during the 2017 campaign to get Labour into a winning position.”
However, Baston believes Labour’s best chance might come in the wake of a “no deal” Brexit. “A government falling amid ‘no deal’ chaos is likely to result in a very poor showing for the Tories. I think they would lose massive numbers of center-right votes to the Liberal Democrats. There would be a backlash among some ‘Leave’ voters [those who voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum] who would also abandon the Tories and maybe go to Labour,” he says.
A “no deal” election would be a “very unpredictable situation,” Baston adds, “but I could see Labour ending up on top in a crisis election.”
“Things might work better for Labour if there were to be an election after October, and the Conservatives have to face the public either having failed to deliver Brexit, or with whatever short-term consequences a ‘no deal’ Brexit might bring,” agrees Anthony Wells, Director of Political Research at YouGov. “It’s easy to imagine either being catastrophic for Conservative support and, as ever, someone has to win. Labour would still face a challenge in winning back support they have lost to the Liberal Democrats and Greens, and an overall majority currently looks like a big ask, but if Brexit does end up fatally wounding the Conservatives, a Labour-led government is still a very realistic outcome.”
Others point to the risk that Johnson’s hardline approach to Brexit will further alienate some voters who traditionally incline to the Tories.
“I think that [Johnson] will put off liberal-minded, outward-looking Brits who like to see themselves as ‘modern’, educated and thoughtful,” argues Oxford academic O’Hara. “Given that many of them are high earners, not so long ago under Margaret Thatcher, John Major or David Cameron they would have been seen as ‘naturally’ and normally Conservative. But now they are drifting strongly into the Labour and Liberal Democrat columns in places such as Reading, Oxfordshire, and Surrey — indeed, the Home Countries around London as a whole, as its population drifts out of the city.”
“I just struggle to see where the ‘small-c conservative’ ‘Leave’ votes come from to even up the losses to liberal-minded ‘Remain’ if… Johnson did go for a very tough Brexit or a no-deal,” O’Hara says.
Johnson’s Brexit position threatens to compound demographic weaknesses which have enabled the Tories to win a majority in parliament only once — under David Cameron in 2015 — in the last 27 years. With its repeated failure to attract the support of the young, ethnic minorities and voters outside the south of England, the party’s underlying electoral position is a weak one. Polls indicate that Johnson is especially unpopular in remain-voting Scotland, and it was only thanks to the handful of seats the Tories won north of the border which allowed May to form a government after the 2017 election.
But there is one final potential twist to the outcome of an autumn election. As both Kellner and O’Hara note, in a hung parliament, the attitude of the Liberal Democrats might be crucial. Given its strongly pro-European position, the party would not countenance backing a Johnson government remaining in office.
However, the Liberal Democrats have also made clear that they will not prop up a Corbyn-led Labour government. Labour might thus be faced with an agonizing choice: the opportunity to form a government — but only if it first drops Corbyn.
Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”