How Boris Johnson's Brexit election gamble maps out
UK political commentator Robert Shrimsley and deputy comment editor Miranda Green sketch out the possible paths to power and the potential road blocks on the route to the general election
Filmed by Rod Fitzgerald and Petros Gioumpasis, edited by Petros Gioumpasis, produced by Joe Sinclair
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OK, Here we go. Ready?
Election 2019. The Paths to Power. So Robert, we now all have the general election that we've been so looking forward to. What do you think of it so far?
I've been enjoying it so far.
It's only a day. So, so far it's been all right.
Yes, barely 24 hours in.
Yes, I think we're all fairly confident at last that we have, if not a resolution that there's a plan for a resolution for the starters. So...
So if not the beginning of the end, then maybe the end of the beginning.
Yes, or the beginning of the beginning.
Or the beginning of the beginning. So we're going to try, because there's no sense in which prediction is a mug's game in politics these days, we're going to try and take us through some of the potential outcomes.
And I think you think there's mainly those can be bulked into three potential election results. And then where that ends us in terms of the Brexit story.
Yeah, I think that's right. Three most likely election results, one is a Conservative victory.
OK, shall we make that blue?
Where are we going... where are we going to end this up?
How about there?
A Conservative party victory is one option.
This is outright majority.
Outright majority, yes.
...that was lost in 2017.
The second option, clearly most people think is less likely, but nonetheless, a Labour victory.
OK. Can I have the red pen, please? Thank you very much.
I'll keep the black pen now.
And the third one's a hung parliament.
I don't think either of us believe that Liberal Democrats are going to sweep to victory. So these are the three fundamental options. And each one of them has a path to how we get there and significant roadblocks in the way. Very few people vote for a hung parliament, but it is a very, very realistic outcome... many people think the most likely outcome.
Because both of the main parties have serious challenges...
...in trying to get a majority, which is what we're going to try and explain a bit today. But obviously, Boris Johnson has been saying for some weeks now that he's desperate to have this election. So why is he going for it if it's such a gamble? And what are the pitfalls in terms of trying to gain that majority?
It is an astonishing gamble. When you think about what is at stake for him, he would become, if he lost, the shortest serving prime minister in the last 100 years, the third shortest serving prime minister ever.
Brexit, which apparently was his life's mission, would be thrown into real doubt. You know, it might not happen at all because of a referendum. And if it did happen, it'd be a very different Brexit to the kind the Brexiters want. So massive risks here.
He would have to secure, essentially, what is the third Tory election victory in a row. That doesn't happen often. He's got no majority in them, which means he's got to gain seats at a time when we know there are places where he's going to lose them.
Why has he gone for it? I think because they've made the calculation that if they can't get the deal through quickly that their next best bet is to make Brexit the subject of this election and to set up this people versus parliament election, and say, look, we were going to do what you asked us to do, but parliament wouldn't let us.
He's very worried about the Brexit party, Nigel Farage's party. And he thinks he has more chance against them if there aren't months and months of delay and compromise on Brexit now.
So if Johnson succeeds - blue pen - in getting his majority. There he is on election night. What does he do next? This is the scenario in which he wins and he carries on with his Brexit plan.
Well, if he wins, I think it's quite straightforward. He pushes Brexit through. I have heard people talk about how we'll have Brexit on January the 1st. That seems to be a little bit ambitious in the formation of a new parliament. But in January no further extensions. He's got a majority, and we have a Tory government. That's easy.
But, as we know, there are lots of sort of roadblocks. I'm going to put little crosses for roadblocks in the way.
So roadblock one is the Brexit party. We know, there you go, you're going to tussle me.
Well, no, I mean, it's absolutely true. So it seems to me he's actually got problems on several fronts. He's really vulnerable to the Lib Dems in areas of the UK where Remain is strong, and also where the sort of traditional Tory message of - the traditional Tory message of sort of stability and prosperity - has been really disrupted by them being such enthusiastic Brexiters. So he's vulnerable to the Lib Dems in the south of England. If he's losing those seats, he's got to pick them up elsewhere. He thinks he's going to pick up all these seats from the Labour party in the north of England, in the Midlands. He kind of needs to do that to compensate.
The Brexit party, if they stand against him, could really mess it up for him. But they've gone quite quiet.
So are they still biding their time, do we think? Or do we think they've realised that the Brexit side that will win in this election, either Remain or Leave, will have to be the side that's most united?
I mean, I think it's a massive question for Nigel Farage. But essentially there is only one way that we are guaranteed Brexit after the general election, and that is a Conservative victory. That is the only path that guarantees Brexit. And if Nigel Farage stands and runs a good campaign against him, his primary achievement will be to throw Brexit into doubt. So it's a massive question.
But if you go through this... you take the Liberal Democrats. You're absolutely right. They're a huge threat to the Conservatives in certain places. There are some seats in London and in the south, which the Conservatives have effectively given up on holding, because they know the Lib Dems are going to take those seats off them. St Albans, maybe Cheltenham, some in London, you know, Richmond Park.
There's quite a lot actually.
These are places where the Tories know the Lib Dems are likely to beat them.
I'm just going to add one here.
OK, add another.
I'm just going to add the SNP.
The SNP, yes, good point. So in the Lib Dems, they know there's a lot of places they've got to run. Most of Lib Dem target seats are Conservative seats. And a lot of them are very vulnerable.
I think the Tories have essentially written those off, more or less, already. They'll try and pull a few back so the Lib Dems don't make quite the inroads they expect. But they've more or less written them off. Their strategy is to take the seats of Labour, as you said.
The problem with the Brexit party is not that I think that it can win many, or indeed any, seats, but that in an election where there are four parties, it doesn't need to do much to be a spoiler. Take Wolverhampton South West. It was Enoch Powell's seat back in the day. The Tory party lost it to Labour a few elections back. Labour still holds it. It's got a majority of about 2,100. So an absolute prime target seat, a seat the Tories absolutely have to take, a real homeland of the Conservative working class vote.
Exactly the target they expect to take off the Labour party.
If the Brexit party go in there and take a few thousand votes, that could be the difference. It could make it too hard to call, if those votes for Labour, votes that the Tories needed or whatever. So it throws it all up into the air. And the Brexit party can be the massive spoilers for Boris Johnson in this election.
So I think we agree then. It's not that we're expecting the Brexit party, if they run an aggressive campaign, to pick up loads of MPs. It's that they could mess things up.
As for Boris. And I think that's why they're holding back at the moment.
Yes. And I think the Tories' whole strategy is taking those Labour seats, some of which look very vulnerable, some of which look a stretch to me. If they lose as many seats to the Lib Dems as we sort of think they're going to.
It's a big question mark for me.
And, as you said, Scotland as well. If they lose most of their 13 seats.
Thirteen, they've got. So you've got 13 Scottish Tories.
Yeah, and we think it can be down to three possibly.
So even on a generous estimate, they' lose, say, 20 to 25 seats between the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. They've then got to pick up 40-odd seats from Labour that they didn't win last time, when, it's worth remembering, Theresa May got 42 per cent of the vote. So it's a big, big ask. And it's a real problem for Boris Johnson.
Then the other thing is he wants to win the whole election talking about Brexit and delivery. And the more the other parties can get him off it, the more problematic it is for him.
So this little person here, that I've drawn here, in his charming flat cap, he is supposed to be a kind of stereotypical northern, Brexit-voting, white, working class chap over the age of 60.
Is he? OK.
... - who is Tory -
I thought that very clear. He is the person that the Tory party has decided they need to get onside in order to win all these Labour seats. They're calling him Workington Man, another one of these unbelievably insulting sorts of monikers that party politics chooses for their target voter.
But the crucial thing is Workington is a town in Cumbria. It's a fairly marginal Labour-held seat and very Brexity.
So they think they can get all these people to vote Tory, even if they...
Even if they've spent their whole lives hating the Tories.
Exactly, which, I mean, I have to say, even with Brexit as this very disruptive force in British politics, I think that's a big ask.
And that's where the Brexit party is so interesting because it is also possible there is an upside to them standing. But who the hell knows which way it goes? Which is they take those Labour votes, that those Leave voters who can't bring themselves to vote Conservative vote for the Brexit party. The Labour vote goes down, Tory vote goes up, and somehow it still works. So that's why this election is going to be so very, very difficult to call and why the national polls are going to be so immensely unhelpful.
But I want to go on to the Labour party now.
Can I just say one thing on the numbers?
OK. Because what you've described that's so interesting is that at every constituency level, you could have some kind of four-way fight, effectively - Tories, Labour, and the Brexit party - Tories, Labour, and the Lib Dems - Tories, Labour, and the SNP, or any other sort of mixture of those, which means you could get a lot of constituencies that you can gain on about 30 per cent of the vote locally.
Exactly right, yeah.
...because the rest of the vote is so split. So it's really unpredictable.
So I think the number one message is, pay no attention to national opinion polls. Don't pay too much attention because they're going to be misleading.
OK, can we have a go at what Labour need to do. Because obviously, in 2017, with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm, a lot of us said, you know, Labour has absolutely no chance. And May started off with an even more healthy lead in 2017 than Johnson's got now in terms of the national polls. But Labour made a lot of progress during the course of the campaign. And clearly, they would hope to do that again and get over the line.
Yeah. To me, the big unknown in this election is the Labour party because it's very easy to explain why it will all go horribly wrong for Labour. It's very easy to explain that. People are sick of Jeremy Corbyn. He's peaked. They've seen through him. They're nowhere in the opinion polls. This time, Remain voters have got a more Remainy option to choose, which is the Liberal Democrats. There's all kinds of reasons why this could, and maybe even should, go wrong for Labour.
But the idea that Labour is going to end this election at 22 per cent, 23 per cent in the opinion polls seems ridiculous to me.
Yes, quite. So they will go up. They will build support.
They will go up. They are good at campaigns. Furthermore, in most of the key battlegrounds, whether it's about Brexit or something else, the choice is Labour or Conservative. So in most seats, those are the first and second place parties. So...
So I put this that, you know, the bumps in the road.
I've put the Corbyn factor because the leadership is a big problem for lots of people. And he's got record low approval ratings. Not Remain enough.
Or do we think also not Leave enough for other people or...
Possibly. But I think if you are so obsessed with Brexit. Brexit is the number one issue for you, the only thing that matters, and leaving is the only thing that matters, then fundamentally, you shouldn't vote Labour. You should vote Tory or vote Brexit party. It's your prime consideration.
What I think is interesting, though, there are all those people, all these leave voters who don't regret their decision, but for whom Brexit is not actually the number one issue.
Quite. Yes. I totally agree.
There were reasons that made them vote Brexit. It wasn't Brexit in itself. And Labour's whole strategy in this election is going to be talk about Brexit as little as possible. It's got a position. Our position is, we're still trying to Brexit. We're still trying to get you a deal. But we're going to give you a choice. And that choice will include Remain, so don't worry. Now, let's talk about the National Health Service.
So in fact, their campaign probably will be don't mention Europe.
Exactly. And they've got a lot of policies and a lot of messages, which I think lots of people have a lot of problems with their answers to these questions. But the questions they're asking are ones that resonate with people. Why is society so unfair? Why does it feel so loaded against ordinary people? Why are my public services not good enough? Why aren't the rich paying enough taxes? All these... why don't I have more control over my life? And on all these... and really, importantly, what are we going to do about the environment and climate change threat?
And on all these issues, Labour has a clear position. And I think it's built up quite a clever patchwork quilt of policies to appeal to a lot of people. And I think the more this election goes on, the more it gets off Brexit, the better Labour's chances are going to be.
I agree. What about the battlegrounds, though? Because I would say that Labour has got the same problem that the Tories have in one sense, which is the SNP. Because the Labour party, traditionally, where they've got a majority in the House of Commons is because they've had an army of Scottish Labour MPs.
Well, they've never won without winning in England, have they?
No. But it's very important, that battleground, to them.
And now, the Scottish fight has become, you know, we've got left-right politics. We've got the Brexit divide. In Scotland, it's also way more complicated because this is a massive opportunity for the SNP to sweep the board and argue their case for being allowed a second independence referendum. So Labour will, I would say, really struggle to make the numbers for a majority because of Scotland.
I would agree, which takes us, I think, to this point, which is the hung parliament again, that actually, the serious possibility we could have this election and be back, more or less, where we are now.
Now, the SNP, essentially, in terms of formation of government, the SNP goes into the Labour column. It's not going to put the Tories back into power. It will be prepared to put the Labour party into power.
Absolutely, particularly if they're offered their independence referendum now.
In terms of getting a Labour coalition government together the SNP seats are almost fungible with Labour in that sense. So the question then is, could they... could Labour...
So OK, so in fact, we can bring the SNP's strength down here as a factor in a hung parliament, couldn't we?
Absolutely. I mean, the whole Tory message... I was talking to somebody the other day. He said, our message is going to be vote Farage, get Corbyn. And then he stopped for a second. Then it's going to be vote Swinson, get Corbyn. And actually, vote Sturgeon, get Corbyn. This is partly a fact because the Conservatives have no natural coalition partners, of course.
Yeah. They have way fewer options.
Probably none, now, in fact, having sold out the DUP.
The DUP, yeah.
So actually, the moment Boris Johnson doesn't have a majority, obviously, A, we're into a hung parliament, assuming Labour doesn't win, and B, there's probably only one outcome. Because there's only one coalition that can be assembled. And it's not a Tory one. Now, I suppose there's a point where he's so close to a majority that he could still run with a minority government, but that doesn't solve the issue of getting Brexit through.
So here's the question in terms of Brexit. So if you're in this territory again, and you've got Labour as the largest party, we assume it'll do some sort of governing deal with the SNP in exchange for a second independence referendum in Scotland. But the SNP and the Lib Dems, who may be up to a much more substantive number of MPs if their campaign goes well... and that will be a pure Remain campaign as well. The Lib Dems and the SNP will want Labour to dump Brexit. Or at the very, very least, they'll want that second referendum in an active Remain campaign.
It's weird to me. I mean, you've gone a stage further than some people would go, which is talking about Labour as the largest party. But assuming that the numbers allowed a Labour...
But it's possible, right?
Of course its possible yeah. A Labour, SNP, Lib Dem grouping to take power, which clearly is possible.
Well, you wouldn't even need that. You'd need Labour and the SNP, and the Lib Dems could just give it..
With the Liberal Dems' acquiescence.
... a nod in some way.
I mean, I think, given that the Labour position has been to renegotiate a deal rather than just scrap it, I don't think Labour could scrap Brexit. But what the SNP and the Lib Dems could do is say to Labour, OK, we want the most minimalist Brexit now. We want the full... we want the Norway option, stay in the single market, stay in the customs union, put it to a referendum. But I think Jeremy Corbyn would pay that price as the price of power.
The question is whether the Lib Dems could allow him to be the prime minister, having gone so publicly on the record to say they couldn't. I think then they'd have no choice if Labour insisted on it.
Well, they'd rule out a coalition. But a coalition is one thing, and allowing somebody to govern is another. So you could have a second referendum, which, in fact, ends up with something like Norway-plus versus Remain.
Yeah, I think you absolutely could, certainly customs union versus Remain.
I think if we end up in a hung parliament then a referendum is very, very, very likely, even if the Tories are the largest party because people are going to say, how do we cut this cord? How do we get through this? At some point, you have to say, the only way through this is to take Brexit out of the hands of the political parties that patently can't handle it.
I'll just come back to the Tory victory point there, by the way. Because the other thing, I think, that we didn't discuss is although Boris Johnson has a pitch, which is I'm trying to get things done, I'm trying to get this country moving again, they've been in power in one form or another since 2010. They've been in power on their own for three years. They have achieved very little in three years, except division, doubt, and an absolute shambles at Westminster.
It is quite possible that voters will just look at them and say, you lot, you've had your go, and you've messed it up. And if Labour get motoring with we are the campaign for change, we're the party for change, I think Boris Johnson could be on the back foot very quickly. So this is an enormous gamble on his part. And it could very easily go wrong.
So basically, we're saying, is he fighting the Brexit election that he wants to fight? Or is he defending nine, nearly 10 years of Conservative government and all the problems that that brings with it?
I think that's absolutely right. And I think... the other thing you have to remember with election campaigns is, in terms of the coverage, in terms of what people want to talk about, in terms of what the media want to do, we do not want to talk about Brexit for five weeks. There's just not that much more to say.
It is possible to change the story very quickly by talking about, we're saving the planet. We are re-orderising capitalism. We are making a fairer society. We're going to give the railways back to you. These are strong arguments. And they make for more interesting news headlines.
And so I think if the Conservative party strategists think that this route was the second-best option after getting a deal, then all I can say is I'd hate to have seen the third route.
So I think, in fact, whereas as we start this campaign, we're looking at a really fractured set of polls. It seems as if everything's up for grabs. It's actually quite possible that we see some sort of action replay of 2017, where, although it was billed as a Brexit election, it turned out to not be the Brexit election because domestic policies disrupted the whole thing. And we also saw that, despite the underlying fracturing, there was a massive squeeze on the Lib Dems. And you actually saw a lot of people voting either Tory or Labour.
That's right. And I think the Lib Dems have got a very interesting question, because up until now, Jo Swinson's policy has been to say, we will not put Jeremy Corbyn in power. And she's saying that because she knows most of her key targets are Tories. Her top targets are Tory seats. She knows Tory voters won't want to put Jeremy Corbyn back.
But she also doesn't want to be in government with him.
But that's also true, a fair point. But at some point, if the election goes a certain way, she might have to actually have to start asking the different question, answering a different question, which is well, you say you're not going to put Jeremy Corbyn in power. Does that mean you're going to let Boris Johnson carry on?
Because at some point, this squeeze that you're talking about, the fact the voters instinctively know there really are only two prime ministerial candidates in this contest means they're going to start asking... if they're really, really anti-Conservative, they're going to start asking, well, if I vote for you, am I actually putting Boris Johnson back by mistake, just as, at the moment, people will say, if I vote for you, will you put Jeremy Corbyn in?
At some point, if the Labour party gain ground, people might start to say, well, hang on a minute. I don't want Boris back. So she's... it's the classic trap for the Lib Dems, and she's as in it as any of her predecessors.
What a wonderful set of choices lie before us, Robert.
Yes. I think we're going to have to keep this map and start marking up the roadblocks as we get further along.