Edoardo Bressanelli (Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies)
The United Kingdom (UK) will choose a government for the third time in the last five years, having voted – in elections which should not have been held – for the new European Parliament (EP) in May. If the Labour Party wins an unlikely majority, there will be a new referendum on the European Union (EU) in 2020, the fourth referendum in the last decade after that on the electoral reform, that on Scottish independence and, of course, the referendum on EU membership in June 2016.
The electoral outcomes have certified the fluidity of the political context. In 2017 as well as in 2015, a different party has obtained a majority in each part of the UK. The Conservative Party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Labour Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have won the elections in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, respectively. The EU referendum has, instead, separated England and Wales – where ‘Leave’ was the most popular option – from Scotland and Northern Ireland – where a majority voted ‘Remain’.
Several of the most recent and significant tensions in the British political system – albeit not all: shifts away from the traditional Westminster model could be observed already in the Nineties – are due to the process of exiting the EU. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that the key electoral slogan of the Conservative Party, and its leader Boris Johnson, is ‘Get Brexit Done’.
The European issue – “a ticking bomb” for the Conservative Party – had already ended the prime ministerial career of the two predecessors of Boris Johnson at Downing Street. The young David Cameron, as the new party leader in 2006, promised that the Tories should “stop banging on about Europe”. Theresa May, after becoming the leader of the conservative party in July 2016, clearly stated that “Brexit means Brexit” and, following the procedure foreseen by art. 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, that the UK would have soon left the EU.
The conclusion of the story was not what Cameron and May had in mind. The former, under pressure from the Eurosceptic wing of his party, promised the referendum on membership which ended his political career. Theresa May, losing an impressive string of votes on her withdrawal deal with the EU, was first compelled to ask an extension of the Brexit deadline, and finally to step down as Prime Minister.
Johnson is, therefore, the third conservative prime minister in a row seeking to end the EU saga. A conservative majority in the House of Commons would allow him to get his withdrawal deal approved and exit the EU by the end of January (albeit entering the transition period). It is therefore not surprising that the emphasis of the conservative manifesto is about ‘getting Brexit done’ – a sentence repeated more than 20 times in its 56 pages. Johnson, who had already promised to bring the UK out of the EU by October 31st (“Do Brexit or Die”), makes the conservative the real party of Brexit.
Although the conservative manifesto deals also with other issues – from the extra-funding of the National Health Service (NHS) to the new migration policy – the key pledge is on Brexit. The Labour Party takes, instead, a rather different approach. The focus of the Labour manifesto is a broad one, as its leader Jeremy Corbyn writes in his foreword: “Some people say this is the Brexit election. But it’s also the climate election, the investment election, the NHS election, the living standards election, the education election, the poverty election, the fair taxes election. Above all, it’s the change election”.
Needless to say, Brexit cannot be completely ignored, and the Labour Party commits to end the process within six months: first, by renegotiating a deal with Brussels; second, having a referendum on the new deal (with remain as alternative option). However, Brexit is framed as an issue among others. While Johnson and his party have developed a Brexit election narrative, Corbyn and the Labour Party seek to move the focus of the electoral campaign elsewhere. This strategic choice is easily explainable not only because of the differences of opinion on Brexit within the party, but also because it was effective in the previous campaign.
In 2017, Theresa May called a snap election to strengthen her majority in the Commons. Her “strong and stable leadership” was the alternative to Corbyn’s “coalition of chaos”. The incumbent Prime Minister sought a clear mandate to implement a hard Brexit. Back then as well as today, Corbyn and the Labour Party did their best to shift the focus of the campaign beyond Brexit, pledging to end austerity. The difference between the electoral support for the Tories and the Labour party, which was over 20 percentage points at the beginning of the campaign, was reduced to just a few points ahead of polling day. Eventually, May lost her majority, surviving as Prime Minister only thanks to the ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the DUP.
If this is what political parties – at least, the two main parties – have on offer, the Brexit issue is clearly the main one in the political agenda for citizens. According to YouGov, since the day of the referendum Brexit is the most important issue for seven British citizens out of ten. A similar picture can be drawn from Ipsos-Mori, according to which Brexit is one of the most important issues for the 63 percent of British citizens, while it is the most prominent issue for slightly more than half of them.
However, Ipsos-Mori trend data offer a more complex picture. The EU issue was not among the most salient issues in 2015 and it did not figure as the top concern for citizens in the referendum and the 2017 general election campaign. Economic issues, the issue of migration, the future of the NHS topped the rankings ahead of the previous electoral contests. 2019 is a different year, with Brexit stably featuring as the top issue for the public. This being the case, the effort required to the Labour Party to frame and successfully endorse an alternative narrative to Brexit is much higher now than it was in 2017.
Drawing again on YouGov, neither Johnson nor Corbyn seem to enthuse the voters. Yet, if Johnson is in negative territory on the favourability score (calculated as the difference between the share of people with a favourable view minus those with an unfavourable view), Corbyn’s score is minus forty. If a majority of respondents considers Johnson untrustworthy, this score is even worse for the Labour leader. Furthermore, just over 20 percent of the public regards Corbyn as the best Prime Minister. On the other hand, four British citizens out of five are critical of the government handling of Brexit.
Notwithstanding the difficulties at managing the EU issue by the two main parties, the frequent rebellions in Parliament and splits, two-party politics remains, once again, the de facto rule for the general elections. Even if the aggregation of the shares of the Conservative and Labour votes would not reach the 80 percent threshold as in 2017, the two-party system remains strong. Support for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party – which was the most voted party in the EP elections – plummeted with Johnson’s hard stance on Brexit. The Liberal Democrats, which came second in the EP elections, have progressively lost support. As Alex Oaten and Peter Kerr have recently written, while “the death of British two-party politics continues to be rumoured, we would caution that such a death might be being greatly exaggerated”.
More generally, the election campaign was not only about Brexit. From the publication of leaked documents on the future of the NHS to the security concerns after the attack at London Bridge, from the issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party to the visit by US President Donald Trump, there was more than Brexit on offer, although Brexit was often the elephant in the room. In any case, whatever the electoral outcome, it is fair to expect that the issue of Brexit will remain on the agenda well beyond the end of January, or the six months necessary to hold a second referendum on EU membership.
The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog
Edoardo Bressanelli is a ‘Montalcini’ Assistant Professor at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa. A similar version of this post was published in Italian for Diritti Comparati