Can Boris Johnson’s people v parliament Brexit strategy win the next election?
The FT's assistant UK news editor Siona Jenkins talks to political experts and visits crucial swing seats in Guildford, south of London, and Halifax in Yorkshire, where she discusses the prime minister's strategy with Labour and former Conservative MPs, and Liberal Democrat and Brexit party candidates
Produced by Siona Jenkins. Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis. Additional producing and editing by Josh de la Mare.
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INTERVIEWER: Can you make a promise today to the British public that you will not go back to Brussels and ask for another delay to Brexit?
BORIS JOHNSON: Yes.
INTERVIEWER: And-- sorry.
BORIS JOHNSON: I can.
INTERVIEWER: And would you rather--
BORIS JOHNSON: I'd rather be dead in a ditch.
SIONA JENKINS: Boris Johnson has promised that Britain will leave the EU by October 31, do or die. To fulfil this pledge, he's portrayed himself as fulfilling the will of the people against Parliament and even the Supreme Court.
BORIS JOHNSON: The people of this country can see perfectly clearly what is going on. They know that Parliament does not want to honour its promises to respect the referendum. The people at home know that this Parliament will keep delaying. It will keep sabotaging the negotiations, because they don't want a deal.
SIONA JENKINS: The October 31 deadline is looming, but with no majority in Parliament, it is all but inevitable that the prime minister will be forced to go to the polls in the coming months. But the question is will Mr Johnson's strategy of pitting the people against Parliament win him a general election?
To try and answer that question, I'm speaking to Whitehall and polling experts at the FT and visiting the marginal seats of Halifax, which labour could lose to the Tories and Guildford, which the Tories could lose to the Liberal Democrats.
SEBASTIAN PAYNE: The calculation of the prime minister and his team in Downing Street is that people in the country are just fed up with the whole Brexit thing. They just want it over. They're really annoyed we didn't leave the EU on March the 29th. They're also annoyed we didn't leave on April the 12th, and they're going to be particularly annoyed we didn't leave on October the 31st.
Now, the natural person to blame would be the prime minister, because he's the one trying to deliver Brexit. But he wants to spin that on his head and say, actually, it's not me. I've been trying to do this. It's these people in Parliament who are to blame. Now, this is not something you normally see in British general elections. Normally, leaders are trying to get a bigger parliamentary majority to give themselves the ability to pass through all that different policies.
But we have a very febrile mood in Britain at the moment. There's a lot of anger in the country. And people certainly do blame the main supporting MPs, judges, and even the speaker in some cases for not delivering Brexit. So they're confident this populist message will work, but it could easily backfire. It could, in fact, say Mr Johnson, you came in promising to deliver Brexit, and you fail, just like the rest of them.
BORIS JOHNSON: We're going to get a deal. That's the plan anyway. And if we don't, we're coming out anyway on October the 31st.
BORIS JOHNSON: That's what we're going to do.
INTERVIEWER: [INAUDIBLE] come out.
BORIS JOHNSON: Yeah, we'll be good. It's democracy.
INTERVIEWER: It is.
SIONA JENKINS: Boris Johnson's election strategy depends on winning over labour voters in parts of northern England that voted to leave in 2016, places like here in Halifax which voted to leave the EU in 2016, but has been solidly labour since the late 1980s. Can Boris Johnson's people versus Parliament strategy work here?
Stephen Baines is chairman of the West Yorkshire Conservatives and is a local councillor.
STEPHEN BAINES: I think that they are backing what the prime minister is trying to do. I think they are pleased that he is pushing for it. Most of them, you know, the majority did vote to leave Europe. That is still what they want to do, and they are disappointed that Brexit has not been delivered by the parliamentarians who are-- they firmly believe are to mandate to fulfil, and they still haven't fulfilled that mandate, and Boris is the only one who's really trying hard to fulfil that wish.
Labour voters could switch, because we tend to be in the mid ground on politics. And Labour, at the moment, they're putting through some very hard left wing policies, and I think that will count against them. And I don't find many apart from really hard Labour heartlands of people who like, Jeremy Corbyn.
SEBASTIAN PAYNE: The question is does the love of Brexit trump the traditional hatred of the Tories. In these seats, Margaret Thatcher's anathema, these are the post-industrial seats that were completely destroyed by the conservatives in the 1980s, and the calculation is the Labour party's now gone so far to the left and is also very much of a main party now that the Tories are now more connected economically and socially with the voters in those seats.
So Boris would like to win those seats. In fact, he has to win those seats if he's going to get a majority in the next election. But this has been predicted before. It didn't happen in 2017. And the only thing that might make it happen this time is the shear force of Boris's personality.
BORIS JOHNSON: This government. I lead has been trying truly to get us out, and most people, indeed most supporters of the party opposite, regardless of how they voted three years ago, think the referendum must be respected. They want Brexit done.
SIONA JENKINS: Halifax's is incumbent Labour MP, Holly Lynch, knows she has a small majority, only just over 5,000 at the last election, but she thinks Boris Johnson's strategy will alienate many voters in her constituency and that Labour policies appeal whatever people feel about Jeremy Corbyn, the party leader.
HOLLY LYNCH: So whereas those national politics play out, I've no doubt that Boris will connect with some people. But even traditional conservative voters that I've spoken to are concerned about some of the recklessness that is characteristic of the way he conducts himself and his politics that deliberately divisive language that he uses. We are a diverse community here in [INAUDIBLE] and in Halifax, and so I really would have concerns if he thinks that he's taken Halifax at the next general election.
And where I've been out speaking to people, actually there's a new found respect which has been odd for the work of politicians and understanding that it is complicated stuff that we are doing. And there is an acknowledgment that no, actually, I think we need a bit more grown up politics if we're going to go forward.
SUBJECT: This Mr Speaker was 10 minutes of bluster from a dangerous prime minister who thinks he is above the law.
HOLLY LYNCH: There's nothing new about [INAUDIBLE] of parties being a bit like Marmite on occasion. I get people that love Jeremy Corbyn. I get people that are not convinced. You want to speak to all of those people. You need to build that coalition of support to being government. So I hear those concerns. But people are usually always very enthusiastic about Labour's policies. And what they are enthusiastic about is getting rid of austerity, replace in a conservative government that northern Pennine towns have really felt the impact of all those years of austerity.
SUBJECT: To also declare the prorogation of Parliament--
SIONA JENKINS: Part of Boris Johnson's high stakes strategy was proroguing, or suspending, Parliament for five weeks, in effect a bid to minimise debate by MPs on Brexit. But it was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. FT data journalist, John Burn Murdoch says the way that voters reacted to that decision reveals how Mr Johnson's election strategy could play in Labour seats seats in the north.
BORIS JOHNSON: And it is absolutely no disrespect to the judiciary to say I think the court was wrong to pronounce on what is essentially a political question.
JOHN BURN-MURDOCH: Labour voters from 2017 who voted leave were actually completely split on prorogation. So 44% of Labour leave voters said prorogation was correct despite the Supreme Court decision. 43% opposed it. So you're looking there are people who haven't been very conservative in the past, but do buck Johnson's strategy on this.
The question, however, on those is going to be is backing Johnson's individual stance enough to make Labour voters vote Conservative, and what we see here is there's evidence from the European Parliament elections early in the year that for plenty of Labour leave voters they're reacting against their own party's stance on Brexit. But they're reacting towards for example the Brexit party.
SIONA JENKINS: So there is a clear danger that in areas like Halifax, the leave vote could be split between Tories and the Brexit party. Sarah Wood is the party's Halifax candidate.
SARAH WOOD: There is a definite difference between what the people want and what the Parliament want. Now, whether or not that will be something which is good for Boris in a future general election maybe possibly not. And the reason I say that is because it might be the right message, but are the conservative party the right vehicle to actually present that to the people? Probably not, because some of their incumbent MPs are part of the people versus the parliament problem.
Whatever happens on the 31st of October, if the message that he's been given currently in the mainstream media, he doesn't honour, so if he doesn't have us leave and honour the requirements of the referendum in 2016, then I think that would bode very badly for the conservative party and Boris Johnson. And I think people are angry enough to let go of Labour and to look for another party.
SIONA JENKINS: Another danger for the conservatives is that while Mr Johnson's strategy might appeal to leave voting towns in northern England and the midlands, it could alienate too many remain supporting Tory voters in places like Guildford. The wealthy town to the south of London has had mostly conservative MPs since 1945.
Guildford's MP, Anne Milton, was in the current government until she lost the party whip after voting for the bill to prevent a no deal Brexit. Now sitting as an independent, she thinks Boris Johnson's strategy will see her constituency switch to the Liberal Democrats.
ANNE MILTON: Pitting parliament against people is saying, we're happy for you to lose trust in Parliament. Well, I think it's a very, very high stakes game, because parliamentary democracy is important in this country. It's important to any country. And suddenly, over this one issue, we're saying, to hell with it.
I was aware before the results of the leadership election were announced that Boris Johnson would not necessarily sit comfortably with the people of Guildford. We're quite a moderate place. I would say we're radically moderate Guildford. There are people who want to leave the European Union without a deal. I mean, they email me.
But I think most people want a moderate solution to the results of the 2016 election. I think Boris Johnson's strategy would make it quite difficult for the conservatives to win Guildford without doubt.
BORIS JOHNSON: Mr Speaker, the truth is that members opposite are living in a fantasy world.
SIONA JENKINS: She also believes Boris Johnson's election optimism could be misplaced with four parties in play, Labour, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, and the Brexit party.
ANNE MILTON: Think back to 2017, and the conservatives felt that definitely 60 seats will win. You know, we might even get 100. And it tanked. I mean, these things happen just during campaigns. So I think that the prime minister is playing a very, very high risk game on the results of the general election and on what will happen to the economy after we leave.
JOHN BURN-MURDOCH: So if we look at somewhere like Guildford, for example, in 2017, the conservatives got 55% of the vote, and in 2016, 59% of people in Guildford voted remain. So if you assume that broadly equivalent people voted in those two elections, we know that a decent chunk of the Conservatives must have been remain voters.
The Tories have got a fairly solid margin there, but that really could erode quite quickly if you have a lot of those conservative voters feeling that because of prorogation or because of the general tone that is now being used in Parliament, they're no longer willing to vote for that party, as with the cases of the leave voting seats. There is then that separate question of do people move away-- do voters move away from the Conservatives to a rival policy such as the Lib Dems, or do they simply refrain from casting a vote at all.
SIONA JENKINS: Anne Milton's view is echoed by the Liberal Democrats who are committed to remaining in the EU under their new leader, Jo Swinson, and are hopeful that seats like Guildford will swing to them, possibly with the help of tactical voting by Labour and Green Party supporters.
ZOE FRANKLIN: When I talk to people, one of the first things that always comes up on doorsteps is Brexit. People are very keen to make it stop, and people are saying to me, it fills me with deep concern that Boris Johnson and the government are determined to push through a no deal Brexit. If they can't get a deal, that really worries people.
And then they move on and say, but beyond Brexit, actually the government doesn't have issues and policies that resonate with me. So in May, we had the local elections here in Guildford and the Liberal Democrats were open above the winner in terms of vote share. The conservatives went down significantly. In the European elections, people chose to take their vote elsewhere, and the Liberal Democrats came out top in the Europeans.
So we've already seen a shift, and then I think from the conversations that I'm having, that shift will only continue. Hardened conservative voters who voted conservative all of their lives are actually turning around and saying I can't vote Conservative anymore because of Brexit, because of this shift towards the right in terms of policy.
BORIS JOHNSON: The sad truth is that voters have more say. Voters have more say over I'm a celebrity than they do over this House of Commons.
SIONA JENKINS: Boris Johnson's policy of pitting voters against Parliament is a huge gamble. Brexit has upended traditional party loyalties, and there is no predicting exactly how remain supporting Tories or leave supporting Labour voters will act. But what is clear is that Mr Johnson needs as many of those Labour voters in northern and Midland towns as he can get to balance the remain supporting seats he loses in other parts of the country.
To do that, he must prevent the Brexit party from splitting the leave vote, which means pushing through Brexit at all costs. Whether or not he can meet his pledge to do this by October 31 will be key to his success.