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Brexit Strategy: Conservatives and Labour Prepare For The 2019 Election

Joshua Hockley-Still & Emil Sokolov (University of Exeter)

“Get Brexit done and we can focus our hearts and minds on the priorities of the British people” Boris Johnson, November 2019[1]

 The Prime Minister spoke these words at the launch of the Conservatives’ election manifesto. They emphasise the importance of Brexit in the upcoming election. Yet, for both main parties, the Brexit policies they have adopted now are not the ones they held a few months ago. In this blog, we will explain how both Labour and the Conservatives have changed their minds on Brexit, due to both the European elections in May 2019, and pressure from other parties. We will also explain what both parties are hoping to achieve with their new Brexit strategies and, although political prediction is a dangerous art, speculate as to which may be the more successful.

Firstly, the Conservatives. After the European elections, their future looked bleak. Indeed, the entire ‘two-party system’ in England looked in jeopardy. The Conservatives were knocked into 5th place, with less than 10% of the vote, having failed to deliver Brexit. Nigel Farage, whose Brexit party secured most votes in the election, promised to punish the Conservatives for this and to wipe out the ‘untrustworthy’ two main parties.[2]

However, in December 2019 we see a very different British political landscape. The two-party system is alive and kicking after Boris Johnson replaced Theresa May as Conservative party leader in the summer. Johnson saw off Farage’s threat via basing his leadership campaign upon one main pledge: ‘Get Brexit Done’. Despite several defeats in Parliament, Johnson managed to successfully renegotiate a new Brexit deal in October that altered the Irish ‘backstop’. Consequently, the Conservative Eurosceptics who combined with the opposition to vote down May’s deal were far more amenable to Johnson’s.

Indeed, going into this election, Johnson has boldly stated: ‘all 635 Conservative candidates standing at this election – every single one of them – has pledged to me that if elected they will vote in parliament to pass my Brexit deal so we can end the uncertainty and finally leave the EU.’[3] With an ‘oven-ready deal’ and his party firmly backing him, Farage’s threat crumbled. It had always been contingent on having a Conservative Party perceived as unwilling or unable to deliver Brexit. With this removed, Leave voters flocked back to Johnson. Farage essentially bowed to the inevitable by standing down all 300+ of his candidates running against Conservative MPs.

Of course, this increased the odds of the Conservatives winning the race by a sizeable margin. Their focus shifted to the 41 seats where the 2016 Leave vote was over 55%, and where they need a swing of less than 7.5% in their favour to be elected.[4] Most of these seats are in Labour strongholds. In order to achieve success in these areas, Johnson and his team need to utilize and bolster the Leave-Remain divide as much they possibly can.

The best example of this strategy was the ITV debate on 19 November between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.  Johnson demanded answers from Corbyn on Brexit 9 times within an hour, and appeared to have the better of the exchanges relating to Brexit. ‘Get Brexit Done’ is a powerful slogan, both for Leave voters and indeed, even many moderate Remainers who just want the issue over with.

However, although the Conservatives have put Brexit at the centre of this election, their strategy is also more complex than that. They are attempting to connect Brexit to a wider, more positive message, in contrast to the ‘dither and delay’ they accuse Labour of.[5] Once Johnson has got ‘Brexit done’, he claims it will reinvigorate the British nation, unleash its full potential into the world and release energy to solve its domestic problems. Historically, this bears an ironic resemblance to Edward Heath’s enthusiasm for Europe in the late 1960s as a solution to Britain’s growing inequalities. This is an age-old Conservative strategy to stir enthusiasm for international politics to avoid focusing on their domestic record. This year’s version is clear: Britain can again be a great country, and Brexit is the gateway to making this happen. Therefore, vote for Johnson: the man to get Brexit done. Is this promise of Brexit and subsequent national restoration the answer to secure Johnson a majority?

Labour certainly hope not. Josh wrote in his blog recently about Labour’s Brexit policy for a second referendum and the history behind it. Yet there is also a clear strategy, albeit largely a reactive one. As the Liberal Democrats claim in their manifesto ‘Every vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to stop Brexit and stay in the European Union.’[6] Their policy is unambiguous and crucially, at the 2019 European elections, was successful. Whilst we have discussed already the effects of the Brexit Party topping the national poll, it is also very significant that the Liberal Democrats came 2nd, knocking Labour into 3rd place.[7]

This meant the European election’s impact was extremely significant for Labour as well as the Conservatives. Even Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was reported as saying Labour’s Brexit policy looked ‘indecisive’ in that election.[8] Faced with a haemorrhage of Remain voters, Jeremy Corbyn felt he had little choice but to take action. In July 2019, he announced his support for a 2nd referendum,[9] despite his clear reluctance in doing so over the previous 3 years. It was a recognition that Leave-Remain is a huge cleavage in British politics. As the Tories moved to lock down the Leave vote, Labour felt they had to appeal to the 48% who voted Remain – over 16 million people.

However, things are not quite that simple. Around 60% of Labour constituencies voted Leave in 2016, including many of the party’s heartlands.[10] Many of the seats Corbyn needs to win Number Ten also voted Leave. Therefore, being considered too strongly Remain is no easier for Labour than being considered not Remain enough. Hence, Corbyn’s avowed neutrality in his proposed 2nd referendum. This may provide an olive branch to Leave voters who support Labour more strongly than Brexit. Indeed, a recent Guardian article from Owen Jones encapsulates the growing feeling within Labour that the party also needs to reach out to its Leave voters.[11] To achieve its ultimate goal of putting Jeremy Corbyn into Number Ten, it must first achieve another; convincing a divided nation they have proposed a fair compromise.

In sharp contrast to the Conservatives’ strategy, Labour’s is dependent upon the Leave-Remain divide being minimised during this election. Indeed, by adopting a Brexit policy that, theoretically, both Leavers and Remainers could (perhaps grudgingly) accept, Labour seeks to neutralise Brexit so it can focus on other issues. During the ITV leaders’ debate, Corbyn struggled to articulate his message on Brexit.  However, in the second half, where issues of domestic policy and public spending were discussed, Corbyn was on surer ground. Indeed, Johnson’s frequent attempts to pivot the discussion back to Brexit could be considered an admission of weakness in these areas.

This election could therefore prove very simple. If Brexit defines the election, and enough Leave voters go to the polls with it forefront in their minds, in all likelihood Johnson gets his majority. However, if Labour can force the election onto territory where they are more comfortable, they will be confident of their chances. There is ample material for them, given they have 9 years of a Conservative record to attack. Austerity has turned so unpopular Johnson has effectively abandoned it. Besides, although much is made of Corbyn’s record levels of unpopularity, Johnson’s personal ratings are not impressive either. According to YouGov, significantly more people have a negative than a positive view of him.[12] As the incumbent Prime Minister, and considered the front runner in this election, this means the election is his to lose. Therefore, his personal unpopularity (although lower) could prove more significant than Corbyn’s. If enough Labour candidates can persuade their voters that a vote for them denies Johnson a majority, a hung Parliament could be a real possibility.

So long as it is not a Brexit election.

The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog

Joshua Hockley-Still is a Ph.D. Researcher in Modern Political History at the University of Exeter; Emil Sokolov is Leverhulme-funded PhD researcher in History at the University of Exeter.

Photo credit: “Polling Station” by Rain Rabbit licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0