British MPs have finally granted Prime Minister Boris Johnson his wish for an early election, approving a vote to be held on Dec. 12. But some in his party are already worried his gamble could backfire.
Johnson has called for a new election — the third in less than five years — to break the Brexit deadlock that has paralyzed the country’s politics since the 2016 EU referendum. His hope is that a strong showing in December will give him a new mandate to push through the withdrawal deal he reached with the EU.
His party has a healthy lead in the polls: The Tories have 36 percent support, while second-placed Labour has 25 percent. But analysts say his plans could be upset by a political landscape fundamentally changed by Brexit, in which smaller third parties are tipped to play a decisive role.
British polling expert John Curtice told VICE News that third parties, like the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party (SNP) and the hard-line Brexit Party, could secure a record number of as many as 100 MPs, making it difficult for the Conservatives or Labour to win an outright majority in the 650-seat Parliament.
This was likely to impact the Conservatives more than Labour, Curtice said, as Johnson’s party would have fewer allies to form a government. That would put his Brexit plans in jeopardy, and set the stage for a second Brexit referendum.
“This election is binary – either Boris gets an overall majority or something very close to it, or there’s a hung parliament,” said Curtice.
“If there’s any result either than Boris winning outright, it means we almost undoubtedly we move towards a second referendum. Even if Labour aren’t the largest party, they’ll be able to look to the Lib Dems and SNP to prop them up for long enough to hold a referendum.”
Analysts said the election would be decided by the major party that loses the fewest votes to minor parties. Conservative voters are likely to be picked off by the Brexit Party — and by the SNP in Scotland — while Labour voters will be lured away by the Lib Dems.
“It is likely both parties will lose vote share and so their challenge is really to lose fewer votes than the other party,” Paula Surridge, a political sociologist at the University of Bristol, told VICE News.
Already, figures within the Conservative party have expressed concerns that new elections could spell a repeat of the disaster of 2017, when former Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election in a bid to shore up her mandate and push through Brexit. Her gamble backfired badly, costing the government its slim majority.
Outgoing Conservative MP Rory Stewart, a former rival to Johnson for the party’s leadership, told the Financial Times: “It will be a repeat of what happened in 2017.” Other former Conservative ministers told the newspaper they feared the election would blow any chance of achieving Brexit.
To help strengthen his party’s prospects, Johnson has moved to reinstate 10 of the 21 Conservative “rebel MPs” he kicked out of the party last month for opposing his Brexit strategy. He’ll allow them to stand as Conservative candidates in December.
But the prospect of fresh elections — which only became possible after Labour dropped its opposition and voted in favour of them — has also sent a chill through the Labour Party.
Many within the party were reportedly opposed to leader Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to finally back an early election, fearing the party could lose seats around the country.
“Sheer madness to hold a General Election in December & on Boris Johnson’s agenda!” tweeted Labour MP Barry Sheerman, adding that a majority of senior Labour MPs were opposed to the vote.
Another Labour MP, Peter Kyle, publicly despaired of his party’s inability to make inroads in the polls against Johnson.
"He is the most unpopular Prime Minister in history and still we're struggling to beat him,” he told Sky News.
Analysts say Labour’s convoluted position on Brexit is unlikely to cut through with voters increasingly exhausted by years of wrangling over the issue. Labour says that if it wins the December election, it plans to negotiate a new deal with the EU, then have a referendum on whether to accept the new deal or remain in the EU. In other words, even a Labour victory would guarantee months, or maybe even years, of further rancor and uncertainty.
Curtice said that despite the hurdle for the Conservatives, it was Labour who’s facing the biggest challenge.
The difference this time is that the main threat to their vote is the Liberal Democrats, whose position on Brexit was much more clear-cut: Scrap it altogether. “The difference this time is the Liberal Democrats are serious competitors,” he said.
And, Curtice said, Labour has to contend with Jeremy Corbyn’s striking unpopularity.
“The Labour Party is in trouble, they’ve been in trouble for months. They’re led by someone who is even more unpopular than he was 2 years ago,” he said.
Cover: In this image taken from video British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking in the House of Commons, London, Tuesday Oct. 29, 2019. Britain is on course for a December general election after Jeremy Corbyn announced that Labour's conditions to back the move had been met. (House of Commons via AP)