BJ + Brexit or JC + 2 refs?

David Runciman

The last time the country went to the polls in winter it was also a ‘Who governs Britain?’ election. In February 1974 Ted Heath called on the voters to decide if they wanted a strong elected government with the parliamentary authority to take tough decisions or government by a left-wing clique beholden to the extra-parliamentary power of the unions, which lay behind a recent series of strikes. A showdown with the National Union of Mineworkers was imminent. ‘This time of strife has got to stop,’ Heath insisted in his opening election broadcast. ‘Only you can stop it. It is time for you to speak – with your vote.’ By forcing the issue in February, he hoped to highlight the urgency of the case: he didn’t even have the time to wait for the weather to improve.

Polling day was appropriately grim. According to a website that records the weather in past general elections, 28 February 1974 was ‘cold and generally cloudy with rain/sleet/snow pushing in to western areas’. Things were particularly rough in Scotland, where voters had to battle through icy conditions to get to the polling stations. Despite this, turnout held up remarkably well across the country. Nearly four-fifths of the electorate cast a vote, which was a significant increase on the previous election in June 1970, even though that one had taken place with the sun shining. The weather does not foretell how elections are going to pan out. Still, it’s hard not to read the weather reports for subsequent elections as a morality tale with strongly Blairite undercurrents. In May 1979, when Thatcher first won, polling day was ‘cold with wintry showers, especially in the north’. It was a little better in June 1983, with ‘a few showers as a trough moved through’, and again in June 1987, which was ‘showery at times’. By April 1992 things were starting to look up, and the general election took place on a day which was ‘generally dry with some sun’. In May 1997, when Blair won his first landslide, the weather was finally perfect, as many people still remember: ‘Very sunny and warm with temperatures into the mid-20s’. Four years later, in June 2001, things didn’t look too bad but there were signs that storm clouds were gathering: ‘Mostly dry … with a few showers … but generally coolish’. Since then, thanks to climate change, the temperatures have continued to rise. But here we are back in winter again.

Heath’s February gamble didn’t pay off, but it wasn’t the weather that cost him. The problem was that the question he used to frame the election didn’t make much sense. If you ask the voters to choose between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary government in a parliamentary election, they give you their tacit answer just by showing up at the polls. After that, they are free to pick which sort of parliament they want and it may not be yours. It wasn’t Heath’s. Though he won more votes than Harold Wilson’s Labour Party, he ended up with fewer seats and had to watch in cold fury as his rival cobbled together a minority government. It didn’t last, and by October Britain was back at the polls for another election, on a day described as ‘cold with showers, especially in the east’. This time Labour won by enough seats for a very narrow parliamentary majority. Within a year Heath was gone, replaced by Thatcher, and the former PM embarked on his long winter on the backbenches, from where he witnessed his successor as Tory leader deliver what he had promised in his 1974 election address – ‘a strong government which has clear authority for the future to take decisions that will be needed … to fight strenuously against inflation’ – though in a manner he detested. It was a bitter harvest.

In 2017 May had another go at framing an election as a chance for the voters to signal not just who they wanted to be governed by but how they wanted to be governed: either weakly, or with the authority that comes with a government in possession of a sizeable majority. Like Heath, May went to the country when her government still had a majority in Parliament, though it was small and left her feeling hemmed in by factions within her own party. Her election mantra – ‘strong and stable’ – was designed to highlight the choice between giving her more parliamentary leeway to deliver her version of Brexit or hemming her in even further. But again, putting it that way didn’t make much sense. There is no option on the ballot paper for enhancing the authority of the existing government. Voters aren’t being asked to convey the degree of their enthusiasm for the current administration. It is simply a choice between this lot or that lot – or just possibly the other lot. On 7 June 2017 (‘mild, passing clouds, some showers’) May got her answer. More people voted Conservative than at any election since Major’s unexpected victory in 1992, but more people voted Labour than at any election since Blair’s triumph in 1997. The country was divided. May was hemmed in once more, this time, as it turned out, impossibly so. Within two years, she was gone.

Now Johnson is making his own attempt at getting the voters to demonstrate that they prefer strong majority government to intransigent factionalism. Although again that is not the option on the ballot paper, the argument this time has more coherence to it. Unlike both Heath and May, he isn’t going into this election at the head of a weak but functioning government, but as the head of a government that had effectively ceased to function at all. He didn’t just lose his majority. In his brief time in office he lost every meaningful vote in Parliament that he faced. The sole exception – his victory on the second reading of his Brexit Withdrawal Agreement Bill – was the one that precipitated the election, because it persuaded all sides that the risks of continued parliamentary attrition were just too high, since no one could be sure who might get their way in the end. Having got used to the idea of everyone losing, suddenly all parties had to face the possibility that their opponents might actually win. Better to take their chances with the electorate. So Johnson can at least say, which neither Heath nor May could, that this election is a chance to restore the possibility of functioning parliamentary government rather than simply a chance to make it go better for the government in post. The fact that he contrived this situation – that he did everything he could to make it seem as though parliamentary government had become impossible, from proroguing Parliament to pulling his Withdrawal Agreement Bill before the third reading – does not in itself undermine the case he is trying to make. The strategy was to get to an election on these terms (Heath and May, so far as one can tell, did not have a strategy: they simply let their frustration get the better of them). To this point, the strategy has worked.

Johnson also has the advantage that although the options on the ballot paper are more complicated than usual – with an ad hoc Remain alliance in some places, independents running against their former parties in others, the Brexit Party not standing against incumbent Conservative MPs and not always against marginal Labour MPs either, and many individual candidates doing their best to signal their distance from their own party leadership – the possible outcomes of the election have resolved themselves into a binary choice. Either Johnson wins a majority, in which case the UK will almost certainly leave the EU on 31 January 2020. Or Johnson falls short of a majority, in which case it will be down to his opponents to construct a government – almost certainly a minority Labour government – that will offer a second Brexit referendum at some point in 2020. All the other possibilities, including a Labour majority or a Conservative minority government, seem very remote. Without picking up seats in Scotland, which looks like a lost cause, Corbyn can’t win a majority. Without a majority, Johnson can’t really govern, because he has burned his bridges with everyone else on whose support he might rely, including the DUP. He could try to hang on past 31 January, in the hope that the no deal cliff edge forces Brexit through. But going back to no deal brinkmanship would be deeply destabilising and offer no basis for a sustainable government going forward. With a majority, however, even a relatively small one, he can and will govern for the long run, because he has purged the Conservative Party in Parliament of many of its malcontents. A small majority is all he needs.

This means that Johnson’s election mantra – either get Brexit done with me or you get Corbyn plus two referendums – has political logic on its side, which ‘strong and stable’ never did. A Corbyn government could only be formed with the support of parties for whom either a second Brexit referendum or a second Scottish independence referendum (or both) are non-negotiable demands. What Corbyn would get in return is unclear, especially now that a second Brexit referendum is official Labour Party policy and a Scottish independence referendum seems to be unofficial party policy. But in a way, that doesn’t matter. What he would get is to be PM. Nor should anyone assume that between these two choices, even framed in Johnson’s terms, Corbyn plus two referendums is the inevitable loser. There are plenty of people for whom that is a pretty attractive option. And for the many others who feel queasy at the thought of it, getting Brexit done with Johnson at the helm may make them feel queasier still. Where Johnson does still have the upper hand is that if you prefer that option, it’s easy to know what to vote: Conservative. Anything else would be self-defeating. But if you want the alternative, it’s harder to know what to do, because in some places, especially where the Lib Dems have the best chance of defeating the Tories, a Labour vote would be self-defeating. So we are back at the familiar problem with ‘Who governs Britain?’ elections, which is that the ultimate choices are not necessarily the ones on the ballot paper. Only this time that might just favour the PM who called the election in the first place.

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But leaving aside all the tactical manoeuvring and dishonest electioneering that this mismatch between options and outcomes is bound to produce, one thing looks clear: for most people, the ultimate choice is a pretty miserable one. As far as one can tell, the public is not enthused by the prospect of either BJ + Brexit or JC + 2 refs. Usually that is put down to the personal unpopularity of the two leaders, both of whom attract strongly negative reactions. The people who dislike them seem to dislike them more than the people who like them like them; and many, many people dislike the pair of them. But there is something else going on. What makes the binary options in this election so unpalatable is a political system that puts too much power in the hands of majority governments and too little in the hands of minority ones. BJ + Brexit is frightening because Johnson at the head of a governing majority formed from a purged parliamentary party would have the power to transform the country over the next five years, off the back of the votes of perhaps two-fifths of the electorate. Most voters would be against it but the opportunities for meaningful political opposition would be painfully thin, unless people take to the streets. What would Johnson do with that power? He says he is a one-nation, liberal Tory and once Brexit gets done he can show it. But Brexit won’t get done in that sense, because ongoing trade negotiations will require him to do what his newly purged parliamentary party expects. Meanwhile, we can expect a Johnson administration’s direction of travel to be towards tough talk on security and a light touch when it comes to the influence of people with serious money. Not Trump, in other words, because Johnson will continue to pay lip-service to one-nation values and he is not a fool; but Trumpism nonetheless. Thatcherism was once described, somewhat heroically, as the free economy and the strong state. Johnson doesn’t even aspire to that. It will be the deregulated economy and the nasty state.

JC + 2 refs is alarming for the opposite reason. Such a government would be able to do not what it liked, but almost nothing that it liked. Whatever time was left over from the high-stakes horse-trading around the two referendums would be taken up with endless political grandstanding, as all parties positioned themselves for the next election that would be bound to come before long. Coalition government, which would be the only way to introduce some stability into these arrangements, has been effectively discredited by the 2010-15 coalition and the miserable fate of the Lib Dems in its aftermath. So we are left with the ad hoc arrangements and incessant opportunism that a minority administration requires. This would have to operate in the face of a large bloc of angry and united Tory opponents while confronting all the swirling currents of nationalism. A Corbyn government would be made up of extremely inexperienced ministers. The kind of economic transformation that is announced in the Labour manifesto needs political stability and long-term civil service support to have any reasonable prospect of success. JC + 2 refs won’t give you that.

Our electoral system, and the political culture that surrounds it, makes minority government hard and precarious. Corbyn doesn’t do hard and precarious. Many in his party, fearing the worst this time round, are planning for a future that is often described as Corbynism without Corbyn. But if their worst fears are not realised and Johnson trips up between now and 12 December, what we will get is Corbyn without Corbynism. As PM he would have real power, including in foreign affairs and over the immediate crisis decisions that make up much of a prime minister’s lot. Not even his most starry-eyed supporters would say that is where his strengths lie. For the rest, it will be a tale of frustration interspersed with emergency measures, followed by picking up the pieces. That’s not because it will be a government of Stalinists. It’s because it will be a novice reforming government without a majority facing a fractured political landscape under a first-past-the-post system that doesn’t know how to deliver a viable way forward when the electorate has failed to provide one.

Corbynism without Corbyn needs constitutional reform to stand a chance. But because Corbynism is so focused on economic transformation it never seems to find the time to prioritise its political preconditions. Clinging on in the hope that something – a Labour majority – will somehow turn up is no longer a plausible strategy, if it ever was one. A Johnson government will not deliver constitutional reform, though no doubt it will repeal the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, in order to give itself that extra bit of autonomy for a rainy day. It will soon face pressure from the SNP for another Scottish independence referendum, and that confrontation, which it is hard to see being resolved in Parliament (either Westminster or Holyrood), will find its way before the courts. In the absence of constitutional reform we may get more and more intractable political conflicts reaching the Supreme Court. Anyone who is sanguine about that prospect after the judgment that the court made in the case of prorogation should remember two things. First, that case effectively limited the power of weak governments that wished to bypass Parliament. Johnson, if he has a working majority, will have less need to bypass Parliament. So Lady Hale, or her successor, can do her worst, and he will probably be fine with it, as he was ultimately fine with her doing her worst last time round. It is a Corbyn minority government that will feel the pinch of Johnson’s botched prorogation. Second, a democracy that needs the courts to settle its biggest disagreements won’t end up with a judicialised politics. It will ultimately get a politicised judiciary.

Some have argued that the picture Johnson tries to paint of the last Parliament having failed utterly – or, in the words of his attorney-general Geoffrey Cox, as having effectively died on its feet – is deeply unfair. It did its job, by blocking a no deal Brexit and ultimately forcing Johnson’s hand in the form of this election. But if the election gives Johnson a free hand for the next five years then it will be hard to see how Parliament doing its job was anything other than a giant displacement activity. Parliament as currently constituted is no longer up to the task of holding an administration like Johnson’s to account. It can block the government, at least for a while, as it has shown. It can enable the government, as it may be about to demonstrate. What it can’t seem to do is give us better government. For that we need a different electoral system, a more deliberative political culture, clearer constitutional rules, enhanced local government and greater buy-in from the people who continue to lose under the present arrangements. But who, under the present arrangements, is going to give us any of that?

The other line of defence for those who believe we can make do with things as they are has been to view the last few years as a terrible accident. The thread running through it all, in this view – from Brexit to now – is Corbyn and the failure of his leadership. Without Corbyn, Brexit might have been stopped, Article 50 might not have been triggered so soon and Johnson might have been replaced as prime minister. But because Corbyn has proved so intransigent while remaining so incompetent, all the cards keep falling Johnson’s way. But it is too easy to blame individuals rather than the system in which they operate. Corbyn’s appeal was that he did not do conventional Westminster politics. That meant it was wishful to think that without changing the way Westminster conventionally operates he would be able to do much at all. The trouble with ‘Who governs Britain?’ elections is that elections are no way to decide that question. If Parliament can’t do it, we need a constitutional convention to establish a new set of ground rules. But winter is coming and no one seems to have the appetite for that right now.