Constantly having to question if the electorate "loves me or loves me not," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will soon know the answer. This Tuesday, after another day of heated debate, the House of Commons in its fourth attempt paved the way for a snap poll to be held on Dec. 12, 2019, with a majority of 438 to 20. Voters will thus shortly have a chance to pass judgment on quite a number of absolutely vital topics for the future of British society that by far exceed the list of issues normally reserved for similar trips to the ballot box.
First, are they satisfied with Johnson’s performance so far? Second, as it is highly likely that Brexit will still not have materialized by then, would people punish the Conservative party for not having delivered? Third, could a last-minute alternative hot issue emerge, such as the skyrocketing increase in the numbers of violent street crimes or funding for the National Health Service (NHS), which could derail any political party’s election plans?
Fourth, could the recently rather divided opposition Labour Party pull off a surprise at the ballot box thus bringing the country closer to a second Brexit referendum in six months’ time? Fifth, will turnout be sufficiently high as November and December equal cold, wet and dark weeks of campaigning? And last not least: will whoever emerges the winner – unless there is another hung Parliament and another vote looming on the Westminster horizon – be able to reverse the incredibly high levels of polarization unseen and unheard of since the miner’s strikes some 35 years ago?
It was a process far removed from easy sailing. Initially, there was what seemed to be a united front against any early vote plans – except for the Tories – which had focused on either pushing for a second Brexit referendum or at least considerable more time to debate Johnson’s most recent Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
Then in a dramatic turn of events over the past weekend, well into the early hours of Tuesday, morning discussions went on behind closed doors. The Liberal Democrats had to make up their minds and so did the Scottish National Party (SNP). But numbers-wise the most important development was, of course, the U-turn announced by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on the same day that his party would in principle no longer stand in the way of the government’s election plans.
So now he has got it – a pre-Christmas vote. But the one pressing question is the following: is Johnson actually going to win it?
Some analysts would say that his predecessor Theresa May wanted to build a personality cult around her so that she could easily win the 2017 general elections. Rather cynically inclined commentators would then go on by saying all is fine since she did not have a personality in the first place; hence her plans were doomed due to the need to liaise with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) post-2017 vote and second, followed by her many attempts at getting Brexit through the House, which as we all know did not yield any tangible results either. Enter the new prime minister. Boris Johnson is arguably of a different caliber; he actually has a strong personality and could at least in theory thus manage to win back the previous Tory majority. But would this really occur if an entire campaign is focused on only two things, a prime minister’s character as a strong and charismatic leader and one single issue, Brexit?
Besides, is the United Kingdom prepared for a U.S.-style personality-based election campaign where individuals matter much more than party manifestos? Granted, Johnson is the antithesis of a man in a grey suit who would normally represent Tory government politics but is he as charismatic as Margaret Thatcher, or on the opposing ranks in Parliament, a Tony Blair who regardless of whether one admires or loathes his policy-making decisions is a superb orator and communicator?
Or could it indeed work out that although trying to be as good a communicator like the two former leaders mentioned above, by outsourcing communications to his inner circle and in particular to Dominic Cummings, could Johnson survive in the ever-changing age of constant social media breaking news and carry home the torch of the 2019 general election as majority vote winner?
Neutral observers would say that it would have been a more clever strategy not to push for a fast-track Brexit debate timetable in the House of Commons as he did but to instead give parliamentarian’s a few more weeks to make their amendments and comments and then have it approved at some point in mid-November with a majority of up to 40 and then try and go to the polls as the prime minister who delivered Brexit in all likelihood resulting in a comfortable Tory party majority. Apparently Johnson’s team decided otherwise – we shall know in the early hours of Dec. 13 whether it was Russian roulette or textbook campaign management.
British society is as split as its Parliament. And if one correctly interprets the mood of the British public and if there is one thing they want to cross off their political wish list, it is Brexit; even some former "remain" supporters have been heard arguing the case, saying, by all means, let’s get it done. On one hand, this might unite a sizeable part of the electorate behind Johnson as he, not May, obtained a majority in the House in principle to agree on his accepting and debating the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Hence the public might trust the prime minister to deliver Brexit by Jan. 31, 2020 at the latest.
On the other hand, there is still the Brexit Party. Very unlikely to score big enough by election day to send dozens of parliamentarians to Westminster as the U.K. system is based on a "first past the post" model it could nevertheless take away large numbers of votes from both Labour and the Tories as the Brexit Party presents itself as the only "true" Brexit movement mostly in favor of a no-deal exit should that become a necessity.
Thus the election campaign will be hard-fought, and it is assumed that verbal warfare will become the order of the day. At the same time, political parties might resort to promising things they would be able to put into action once elected. It is said that both the "leave" and "remain" campaigns resorted to being economical with the truth back in 2016, the year of the referendum.
If the public wants not only Brexit to be taken care of but also needs a return to more harmonious politics, it is not entirely implausible that opposition Labour and Liberal Democrats may become serious challengers to the Tories regardless of today’s 37% lead in the opinion polls.
With all these unanswered questions, nothing can be decided yet except for one thing: the British electorate finally has another say about the way forward in British politics. In these times of complete uncertainty at least there is something to celebrate!
* Political analyst, journalist based in London