Boris Johnson's refurbished party: Can it overcome the obstacles ahead?

Published 06.11.2019 00:26
Updated 20.12.2019 01:27
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during the weekly Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, Oct. 30, 2019. AFP
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during the weekly Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, Oct. 30, 2019. AFP

A snap vote decision was made to break the Brexit deadlock, but it is too early to predict if it will make it or not

It has been nearly a century since the U.K. held a general election in December. It is not a political season but such a hung and crippled Parliament with the life-sapping dilemma of Brexit was a Sisyphean task that has to come to an end. All are pinning hope on the upcoming election to either draw a new parliamentarian majority able to grapple Brexit, with or without a deal, and pass it through Parliament or, as others wish, holding a second referendum for Brexit.

The three months of Boris Johnson’s premiership were a run-up to this election. The annual conferences of parties came up with new approaches for Brexit. Lavish were the promises as Johnson poured money into public services with more to come, and Jeremy Corbyn reiterated his revolutionary economic policy of Thatcher’s policy in reverse.

Tories' Brexit block

Two things have been stumbling blocks for the Conservative-led governments in delivering Brexit. First, the split within the party between two opposed stances on how to carry out Brexit. Theresa May’s government’s deal was thwarted by "hard-Brexiteers" and by the camp of "soft-Brexiteers." Moreover, the slight majority Conservatives have in Parliament was tied to an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that decidedly votes down any bill that could downgrade Northern Ireland, the moot point in negotiations with the EU.

Hence, Johnson has flat out jettisoned the so-called soft Brexiteers and the Conservative centrists from the list of candidates in the general election. His scheme is that all voices except his should remain silent on Brexit and prospective Conservative parliamentarians should vote in favor when his either deal or no-deal Brexit comes up for vote in Parliament.

In a ruthless purge of the Conservative Party, Ken Clarke, Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan, Alistair Burt and other high-ranking, long-standing Conservative members of Parliament have been denied candidacy for the party in the election. Meritocracy and experience are not matters of interest nowadays in the new brand of Conservatives and have been sidelined behind the main requirement of showing loyalty to the party's leader.

Johnson’s purge was implemented in Parliament starting with 21 Conservatives who defied him and voted for the Benn Act, the bill preventing a no-deal Brexit, on Oct. 31. Before that, he began his tenure with a revengeful sacking of most ministers in May's cabinet.

With the revamped party, Johnson now marches toward the election with his eye on a majority in Parliament. It goes without saying this very wanted majority should be unblemished by uncontrollable allies who might scuttle Johnson endeavors.

On Nov. 1, Nigel Farage, the leader of Brexit Party, launched his campaign. In his speech, Farage proposed that Johnson ditch his recently reached deal with the EU to strike an electoral pact and forge an unstoppable force to execute a perfect Brexit.

Most likely Johnson will dismiss the offer as pollsters give him a lead over other parties, and he, after revamping the Conservative Party, has pulled the rug out from under the Brexit Party and unequivocally converted his party into hell-bent Brexiteers. Some could see Brexit Party’s raison d'être shriveling up.

More importantly, Farage’s parties, the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) and Brexit eat into the Conservative electorate and, therefore, the best way to deal with him is undermining his voter base and stopping him in his tracks.

Who is against Johnson?

However, not all "leave" voters buy Johnson’s Brexit approach. Farage discredits Johnson's deal saying, “It is not Brexit.” Add to this U.S. President Donald Trumps’s interview on LBC radio through which he ruled out a trade deal between the U.S. and the UK if Johnson’s Brexit deal goes into effect. Those words scratch the idea Johnson has vehemently been defending: namely that he is the leader to get Brexit done.

Conservatives should not underestimate the Brexit Party, and they need to look no further than May’s European election and the parliamentary by-election results, though the pollsters didn’t give his nascent party the sweeping votes it incurred.

If no electoral Conservatives-Brexit deal has been secured by mid-November, the Brexit Party will have to compete for every seat in the general election, just as Farage predicted. That would certainly be at the expense of Conservatives, and the prospective outcome for such a scenario would deprive them of having a majority with their own.

Some could argue that Johnson has reinforced the leave voters during his short premiership. It’s right, but let’s not forget his term ended with a broken promise of delivering Brexit on Oct. 31. Leavers will not let that slide. Farage is expected to use it to undermine Johnson’s credibility.

Johnson’s Brexit deal has not only disappointed a portion of hard Brexiteers; it has also offended Brexiteers who refuse to support a "no-deal" Brexit.

Supposing that Johnson wins the election and is able to pass his deal through Parliament, does this mean riding out the no-deal ghost? Not Really. The deal itself could be a “trap door” to a no-deal Brexit.

Johnson’s deal’s Clause 30 strips Parliament of the vote to extend the transition period and hands this issue exclusively over to the government. Phillip Hammond, former chancellor of the Exchequer, described it as a camouflaged no-deal, a matter hard-Brixteers are keen on since it reassures the leave demographic.

These gimmicks riddle Johnson’s political profile and have eroded voter trust in him. That is not hyperbole. A man who shut down Parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit, played down the consequences of imposing a hard border in Northern Ireland and utilized “inflammatory language” in Parliament copied thereafter in threats against parliamentarians will not be seen as trustworthy for loads of people.

The upcoming general election is highly anticipated after three years of post-Brexit referendum uncertainty. It could be considered the Brexit election, with parties drawing up manifestos based on the exit. Remainers’ votes would have gone to either Lib Dem, which pledged to dump Brexit altogether, or Labour Party, which aims at both soft-Brixteers and remainers, pledging a second referendum of two choices: remain or accept a Labour-made deal. Leavers’ votes will go to either the Conservatives or the Brexit Party.

Holding a snap general election is long overdue within the context of the Brexit deadlock. Although that might not happen soon after the election, its result would clarify the public’s opinion and perhaps lead the main parties to compromise on their approaches.

* U.K.-based Palestinian journalist

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