UK General Election 2019

UK General Election 2019

The Brexit Endgame

12/2019  | Reading time: 12 minutes

The United Kingdom is heading towards its third general election in less than five years. Next Thursday’s vote is widely expected to be very unpredictable. However, one thing is sure: like in 2017, the election will be totally focused on Brexit. Vote switching will be crucial in this election in a larger measure than it was in 2017, given the more populated political battlefield. So the secret of success lies in the parties’ ability to persuade those voters who have never voted for them.

The United Kingdom is heading towards its third general election in less than five years. Next Thursday’s vote is widely expected to be very unpredictable. However, one thing is sure: like in 2017, the election will be totally focused on Brexit. Boris Johnson, the resolute Prime Minister who promised to “get Brexit done,” has not been able to resolve the deadlock but has instead given the UK its first December vote since 1923. The Prime Minister insisted this election was needed to break the deadlock in Westminster, since MPs backed the Brexit deal he had agreed with Brussels on but demanded more time to debate it. After missing the Halloween deadline and agreeing on 31 January 2020 as the new Brexit day, Johnson is putting on Grinch clothes and trying to destroy British families’ Christmas. Even if the Conservative party has a large advantage over its opponents according to polls and was, for this reason, more inclined to go for a vote, the Prime Minister took a huge gamble, given how highly unpredictable British politics has been since the Brexit referendum in 2016. Vote switching will be crucial in this election in a larger measure than it was in 2017, as the political battlefield is more populated. So the secret of success lies in the parties’ ability to persuade voters who have never voted for them. But let us take a look at the forces which will compete in the December general election.

Source of data: Politico

The first to talk about can only be Johnson’s Conservative Party. Since his taking office at 10 Downing Street, Johnson has lost his tiny majority and suffered a series of painful defeats in the Commons, which made him realise that a snap election would be the only breakthrough. Since Johnson replaced May as the head of the Conservatives, the party’s popularity among its voters has increased, and, after the disastrous European election, Tories are back in business. Johnson’s party is today polling at 43%, ten points more than the Labour, and it is strongly committed to attracting “Leave”-supporting Labour voters and Brexit Party supporters who can back the Prime Minister’s deal. Amid those predictions, Tories might expect a majority large enough to introduce the legislation negotiated with the EU in October successfully.

However, we must not forget that May opened her 2017 campaign with twenty points ahead of Jeremy Corbyn’s party that eventually turned out to be just 2.5 points. The British electoral system is quite peculiar, and it is hard to forecast whether preferences will be turned into votes and where these votes will be turned into seats. Members of the Parliament in the United Kingdom are elected in single-member districts where the candidate with the most votes wins the seat. This means that, even if a party gets a large share of votes at a national level, it can fail to win any seat as long as these votes are spread evenly across the whole country. Thus, anticipating the geographical distribution of votes is the only way to predict the share of seats each party might get.

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Boris Johnson, leader of the Conservative Party
Source: Chris Harvey/Shutterstock

With this clarification, it is easier to understand Nigel Farage’s decision to withdraw 317 of its candidates from the electoral race. To avoid splitting the pro-Brexit vote and “preventing a second referendum from happening,” Farage’s Brexit Party will not contest all those seats the Conservatives won at the last election. However, Mr Brexit’s gift box for the Tories could eventually turn out to be empty, as Farage might have overestimated the strength of his party, which, after May’s exploits, is stagnating well under the double-digit mark. In fact, given its fair distribution across the country, there is a high risk the Brexit Party will fall short of having an MP elected to the next parliament. Like the Conservatives, the Brexit Party also wants to deliver Brexit, but its desired outcome differs from that of Johnson’s party. Farage has regularly criticised the Prime Minister’s deal, claiming that it fails to deliver upon the result of the 2016 referendum and even suggesting that the idea of leaving the EU without a deal should be preferred.

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Brexit Party’s Leader Nigel Farage
Source: ComposedPix/Shutterstock

Anyway, while the list of pro-Brexit parties is pretty short, the pro-Remain field is a bit more crowded. Among all contenders, a special position is occupied by the Labour Party. In fact, Corbyn’s political group has strongly criticised Johnson’s deal but has not yet arrived at a clear and widely accepted Brexit strategy. Labour’s dilemma lies in the fact that many of its traditional working-class constituencies voted to leave the EU, but, in major cities, where the party became popular among the young and the middle class, the majority supported Remain. Corbyn has pledged to offer its voters a final say on Brexit. He also said he would seek to secure “a sensible deal with the EU—probably accepting being part of a customs union with the EU—within three months and call for a second referendum where people would decide to back the deal or remain in the EU. However, the Labour leader has not cleared up if during this public vote the party would campaign for a “Labour Deal” or stopping Brexit. However, Labour’s muddy position on Brexit is alienating many “Remainers” who, in turn, are looking towards parties with a more defined anti-Brexit agenda. In order to stop this haemorrhage of votes, Corbyn is trying to partially shift the focus of the campaign from Brexit and concentrate on issues where the party has a clearer position and some degree of public support—i.e., the NHS, public services, or putting an end to austerity. His hope is that many undecided voters might be convinced of rewarding a party having a serious and clear five-year-term vision instead of other parties that have a limited policy area beyond Brexit.

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Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party
Source: 1000 Words/Shutterstock

Unite to Remain is an agreement between the Liberal Democrats, the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party. They will choose a common candidate in sixty selected constituencies in order to boost the Remain vote. The leading force within the group is the Lib Dems, and Jo Swinson, the party leader, pledged to stop Brexit on day one if she won the keys to Downing Street. The party, which today is polling around 13%, hopes to repeat the excellent result of the last European and local elections and aims at gathering disillusioned Conservatives and Labour supporters who are dissatisfied with their parties’ plans for Brexit. Given the high relevance of “tactical voting,” it is likely that the Lib Dems will attract a big part of the Remain vote, especially of those who are not content with Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist-like programme. Jo Swinson promised to revoke Article 50 in case her party would obtain the majority by itself, but she could be willing to form a coalition government with anyone ready to guarantee a new public vote. Given that Labour is not expected to win a clear majority, offering a second referendum to the Lib Dems in exchange for their support for putting Corbyn at 10 Downing Street could be a likely outcome. As for the Green Party, any of their MPs in Parliament would be committed to revoke Article 50 via a new public vote and deliver a Green New Deal in the next ten years, while, in the Labour-dominated Wales, Plaid Cymru is also asking for more powers for the Welsh Assembly.

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Liberal Democrats’ leader Jo Swinson
Source: Dominic Dudley/Shutterstock

And what about the North? In Scotland, this will be a totally different election from what the rest of the UK is going to have. In fact, “north of the border,” the focus of the election will not solely be on Brexit, but it will also involve the issue of independence. There is a strong feeling that this vote could be very beneficial for the Scottish National Party (SNP), which could increase its thirty-five seats—which, currently, make it the third-largest party in the House of Commons—and win both the thirteen constituencies held by the Conservatives and the seven held by Labour. Such an estimate would see every single marginal Conservative and Labour seat fall in the SNP’s hands, leaving the SNP with as many as fifteen seats, which would render the party the real kingmaker of the British political arena.

Aware of this possibility, Nicola Sturgeon has again put the demand for a second independence referendum at the heart of the SNP’s election campaign. In November, Sturgeon said that, in the event of a hung parliament, SNP would drive a “hard bargain” with the Labour Party, and her primary demand would be another poll on independence. However, a second Scottish referendum is neither “desirable or necessary,” according to Corbyn, and his party would not support it if Labour took office. Recent opinion polls suggest that there is no overwhelming majority that wants to stay on the Scottish path to independence, and it is rather likely that support for leaving the United Kingdom has been driven by those who voted Remain in the EU referendum. Thus, the independence issue is inextricably linked to Brexit, and promising a second referendum could be counterproductive. On the one hand, it could help Conservatives to sell themselves as defenders of the Union, a strategy that has already helped them win thirteen seats in 2017. On the other hand, it could give a boost to the Liberal Democrats as the party most identified with opposition to Brexit, but, at the same time, unaccustomed with irresolute independentist stances.

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Nicola Sturgeon and the supporters of the Scottish National Party
Source: Terry Murden/Shutterstock

While Brexit could end up leading to Scottish independence, things are even more messed up on the other side of the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland’s role in nationwide elections has always been marginal, but, since in the last two years ten Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) MPs have held the balance of power in Westminster, addressing the government’s Brexit policy, this situation has been reversed. Boris Johnson’s deal with Brussels will put Northern Ireland in a common economic zone with the EU, de facto drawing a border in the Irish Sea. The Prime Minister’s light-hearted “betrayal” of Unionists’ demands has shown that, for the English government, “Brexit is well worth Belfast.” The Six Counties’ expendability made the DUP realise that a brand new strategy is vital—not only in case of Brexit but also for the very existence of Unionism. Whether Arlene Foster’s party will be able to top the polls in most of the eighteen Northern Irish seats like in 2017 is hard to tell, but whoever will gain the majority, he or she will be likely to shape not only the British government’s Brexit strategy but also the future of the region. Differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, the election in Northern Ireland is expected to raise a set of fundamental issues which need to be explained.

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Northern Ireland elects eighteen representatives to Westminster
Source: DJ Wilson/Shutterstock

The first is the issue of “tactical voting.” In Northern Ireland, pro-Remain forces also agreed on selecting a single candidate in some constituencies. The Alliance is the only party that has not agreed upon any sort of pact, but it has since then faced pressure from other pro-Remain parties which say an election that is all about Brexit requires different strategies. Sinn Féin (SF) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) have both stepped aside in three constituencies in an effort to defeat the pro-Brexit DUP, and, in North Down, they have even renounced to contest the seat in favour of a “Remainer–Unionist” like Lady Sylvia Hermon—who, a few days later, decided to retire from the race anyway. This move is almost certain to cost the DUP seats, and, while it only affects a handful of MPs, it could make a difference in a hung parliament. However, the tactical voting strategy in Northern Ireland has a weakness: Sinn Féin’s abstentionism (which is our second main issue).

Since 1918, SF’s elected representatives have not taken their seats in Westminster, refusing to swear their oaths to the Crown. Obviously, Brexit has increased focus on this “resistance strategy,” in particular since 2017, when the seven empty Sinn Féin seats reduced the number required to form a majority and made possible the formation of a Tory–DUP government. Even if Sinn Féin has shown absolutely no inclination to reconsider its stance, this election might cause a blackout in the party’s philosophy. SF is running in almost all the eighteen constituencies, while, in the others, it has agreed to choose a joint candidate with other pro-Remain forces, clearly showing that Brexit trumps every logic or principle. However, if we assume that voters might vote tactically, the party could, in turn, alienate most of the anti-Brexit electorate—also considering that DUP is against Johnson’s Brexit.

Meanwhile, if Sinn Féin’s voters remain loyal and the party will repeat—or even increase—its 2017 performance, the abstention of its MPs could even make life easier for Tories. In fact, in normal conditions, the majority in Westminster is set at 326 seats (which equals the number of all 650 seats divided by two plus one). However, an effective majority could be smaller, as the Speaker and his deputies, albeit MPs, do not usually vote (they usually have four seats, so the majority is set at 324). If Sinn Féin succeeds in electing seven or more MPs which will abstain, the number of seats required for the majority will be even lower. The nationalist party’s behaviour after 13 December will, therefore, be crucial. Somebody is even speculating on the possibility that, in case of a hung parliament, Jeremy Corbyn might offer SF a border poll for Irish Unity if its MPs quit the abstention and vote in support of a Labour government. How will the nationalist party react to such a once-in-a-lifetime offer?

The next issue regards Unionism. As already mentioned, Brexit has turned out to be the biggest challenge for Unionist since the Good Friday Agreement negotiations. After 2016, traditional divisions within the Northern Irish society had their comeback, and the DUP supremacy in the Six Counties has constantly been challenged by not only nationalist parties but also an increase in the support for cross-community parties—such as Alliance—which are blaming the ruling parties (DUP and SF) for the collapse of power-sharing and the radicalisation of the Northern Irish society. The last European election showed that Alliance’s view is shared by more and more voters in Northern Ireland, and the “secularisation” of the Northern Irish society, together with the need for accountability in the government, could also see a rise in the support for parties with more progressive ideas on 12 December. DUP needs to mull over its next move tactically. Supporting the Prime Minister’s deal will be like disowning everything the party stood for in the last years. Oddly, the only way out could be backing Corbyn at 10 Downing Street and his custom union deal plus public vote. Unlike a hard Brexit, which could foster demands for a united Ireland, a soft Brexit might be the least bad outcome for DUP even if supporting a pro-Sinn Féin PM, such as Corbyn, could alienate the most intransigent Unionist supporters.

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Northern Irish protest against Brexit
Source: Gina Power/Shutterstock

Finally, there is the issue of Irish Unity. The possibility of a border poll is looking more likely day by day as the Brexit deadlock lingers on. Many observers, from both sides of the spectrum, are suggesting that the region should be preparing for a united Ireland within ten years. Sinn Féin’s leader Mary Lou McDonald called for a vote within five years, but Unionists’ opposition to a United Ireland could see a further radicalisation of the political environment and open old wounds. However, last elections indicated that the Northern Irish society was not comfortable with the old sectarian divisions anymore, and the growing support for staying in the EU—even at the cost of a reunification—could move some Unionist parties to engage in an agreed solution with Ireland. If a border poll is held, and the vote is in favour of the Irish unity, it will set in motion significant and serious constitutional change across Ireland, and, in such a context, the EU will have to play a crucial part. If Johnson wins, Northern Irish Unionist might finally realise that their focus should shift southward and not eastward anymore. Anyway, whatever the outcome of this election, it is very likely that we will hear the word “Brexit” for long.

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