For Britain's sake, this is a gamble Boris Johnson MUST win

For Britain’s sake, this is a gamble Boris Johnson MUST win: The Zombie Parliament is dead, but the stakes for this historic winter vote could not be higher, argues DOMINIC SANDBROOK

‘To some extent,’ wrote Boris Johnson in his book about his hero Winston Churchill, ‘all politicians are gamblers with events. They try to anticipate what will happen, to put themselves on the “right side of history”.’

Well, now Mr Johnson himself has rolled the dice. It’s easy to see why he did it, of course. Nobody will mourn the end of this Zombie Parliament, full of MPs who were only too happy to tell us what they were against, but never what they were in favour of.

We need a government that can govern, and we badly need an end to Brexit. Even so: what a gamble! If things go wrong, we could wake up with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, John McDonnell running Britain’s finances, Diane Abbott in charge of the police and security services, and Emily Thornberry representing this country abroad — the ultimate Nightmare Before Christmas.

On paper, you can see why Mr Johnson was so keen to go for it. Most polls give the Conservatives a double-digit lead, while his personal lead over Jeremy Corbyn is more than 20 per cent.

Having shown commendable decisiveness since becoming PM, Mr Johnson has a clear plan for leaving the EU with a deal, whereas Labour’s Brexit strategy is almost laughably vague.

On paper, you can see why Mr Johnson was so keen to go for it. Most polls give the Conservatives a double-digit lead, while his personal lead over Jeremy Corbyn is more than 20 per cent

So it is easy to see how events might play into Mr Johnson’s hands.

The Remain vote splinters between Labour and the Lib Dems. Floating voters are repelled by Mr Corbyn’s weakness and extremism. The Brexit Party’s supporters drift back to the Tories. And at the end of it all, the Prime Minister strolls back into No 10 with a handsome majority. Job done.

This, at any rate, is the future according to Mr Johnson’s pocket Machiavelli, Dominic Cummings, who masterminded the Leave campaign in 2016.

In Mr Cummings’s scenario, dozens of working-class Leave constituencies will turn Tory for the first time in living memory, more than compensating for any losses to the Lib Dems.

But in politics, as in life, things rarely work out as planned. And for all the talk of Mr Cummings’s strategic genius, I can’t help noticing that many of his wheezes have proved to be total disasters.

We need a government that can govern, and we badly need an end to Brexit. Even so: what a gamble! If things go wrong, we could wake up with Jeremy Corbyn (pictured left) as Prime Minister, John McDonnell running Britain’s finances, Diane Abbott (pictured right) in charge of the police and security services, and Emily Thornberry representing this country abroad — the ultimate Nightmare Before Christmas 

The prorogation of Parliament, for example, was supposedly a tactical masterstroke that would prove Mr Johnson’s mettle as a ruthless Prime Minister. In reality, though, it was a constitutional shambles, uniting Remainers in opposition before it was ignominiously struck down by the Supreme Court.

And although I am delighted to see the back of this preening, pointless Parliament, there is a risk that Mr Johnson’s gamble might turn out to be a terrible own goal.

We have, after all, a very recent precedent for an invulnerable PM calling an early election with a commanding lead, looking forward to Hoovering up Leave voters, and then watching in horror as the whole thing exploded in her face.

Boris Johnson is very different from Theresa May, of course. As a tried and tested TV performer, accustomed to the spotlight after years as Mayor of London, he is a much better campaigner. (Indeed, he could hardly be worse.)

But I can’t help noticing that the opinion polls give him a smaller share of the vote than the 42 per cent Mrs May won in the actual election two-and-a-half years ago. Can he really be so certain he will succeed where she failed?

I struggle to think of any recent election that has been shrouded in such agonising uncertainty. Will Mr Johnson win support for his decisiveness, or lose them for his rackety private life?

Will Remainers rally to Jeremy Corbyn? Will it be a second referendum in all but name? And which will matter more: austerity or allegations of anti-Semitism? The answer, if we are being honest, is that nobody knows. This is what makes the election impossible to call.

Does history offer any guide?

Women at a polling station in Thornton Heath, London, during the General Election, 6th December 1923

One worrying lesson for the Prime Minister is that the British people usually resent being dragged to the polling stations, and rarely reward the politicians responsible. Mrs May learned that the hard way in 2017.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that even though winter elections make little difference to turnout — 1923 and 1974, for example — many people are very unhappy at the thought of a general election just before Christmas.

Indeed, for most sane people, the prospect of popping into Santa’s Grotto and finding, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Emily Thornberry or Anna Soubry lurking behind the beard is simply too ghastly to contemplate.

The ‘coupon’ election of December 14, 1918, was held after the end of World War I. The Tories agreed a pact with David Lloyd George’s Coalition Liberals, with approved candidates brandishing a letter of endorsement, or ‘coupon’. The coupon parties won a landslide, with more than 50 per cent of the vote and 509 seats between them.

Could today’s Tories strike a similar arrangement with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party? It seems very unlikely, since Mr Farage has already made clear his contempt for Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal.

And even if the two parties quietly agreed local arrangements, it could drive moderate voters into the arms of the Lib Dems or even Labour. That might leave Mr Johnson with the worst of all worlds: winning some Leave voters in Labour strongholds, but not enough to counteract his losses in the middle-class suburbs and university towns.

What an irony, if Nigel Farage’s contribution to history is to put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street and to destroy any chance of Brexit at all. Stranger things have happened, mind you.

That 1918 was a one-off, and other December elections offer less rosy precedents. In December 1910, for example, Herbert Henry Asquith went to the country in a desperate attempt to break the stalemate in a deadlocked Commons. This sound familiar? But the impasse remained.

The Liberal-Tory balance merely shifted from 274-272 to 272-271. If a similar thing happened, we would be back to where we started.

At that point, pressure for a second referendum might become unstoppable — a disaster for British democracy.

An even more worrying precedent is December 1923. That winter, Conservative PM Stanley Baldwin — who, like Mr Johnson today, had only been in office since the summer — went to the polls to win a mandate for his policy of putting tariffs on foreign imports.

His gamble backfired completely, with the number of Tory MPs falling from 344 to just 258.

As a result, Labour’s Ramsay MacDonald formed a minority administration, the first socialist government in Britain’s history.

There is, perhaps, an omen there for Jeremy Corbyn.

It is true, of course, that the December 2019 election will take place in an utterly different political, social and cultural landscape. But that only adds to the overwhelming uncertainty.

Never in living memory has the context seemed so chaotic.

Edward Heath meets members of the public when he visits Gravesend in Kent in 1974

The Tories may field some candidates who were recently stripped of the party whip for opposing a No Deal Brexit. It is not yet clear what one of those — ex-Chancellor Philip Hammond who’s busy touring TV and radio studios to attack his government — will do.

Labour remains riven from top to bottom. Not only are dozens of MPs openly appalled by their own leader, under whom the cancer of anti-Semitism has seeped deep into the party’s culture, but they have no clear Brexit position.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have their fourth leader in less than five years in the untested Jo Swinson, who has yanked her party into the extreme ultra-Remain position of wanting to revoke Article 50 and scrap Brexit completely.

It’s pretty rich, too, for them to have been clamouring for an early election when they insisted on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which had stipulated there should not be another election until 2022.

In Scotland, the SNP seem certain to win a colossal majority, with the Tories and Labour facing a wipeout. The Greens will almost certainly pile up votes in university towns — but will they take more from Labour or the Lib Dems?

Also in this chaos, London seems certain to be a Labour stronghold, although the Lib Dems’ Euro-fanaticism might make a difference. And what about all those Leave-voting seats in the North and Midlands? Are they really about to turn Tory, as Mr Johnson’s strategists hope?

Or will ancestral loyalties kick in, with working-class voters returning to the Labour fold?

Pictured: Edward Heath in September 1964

Crucially, too, can Boris Johnson repair his reputation among women voters, given concerns about his chequered love-life? Will Mr Corbyn escape his own reputation for supporting terrorists, Communists and racists?

How all this will play out, none of us can say. Perhaps the biggest factor may be the campaign itself. Once the election gun is fired, even the most meticulous calculations buckle under the pressure of events, as Mrs May found.

Inevitably, the party leaders will come under pressure to hold televised debates. With one gaffe, either Mr Johnson or Mr Corbyn could easily sink their chances. Yet can either afford to duck the challenge, as Mrs May did to her cost?

The Labour leader may be adrift in the polls but this is his last chance of power. He loves nothing better than haranguing crowds of loyal supporters; and as the last election proved, he is perfectly capable of raising his game once he is on the road. 

By contrast, Mr Johnson — supposedly such a popular campaigner — can expect a bruising ride. Few Prime Ministers of modern times have provoked such visceral hatred in their opponents, and Labour activists will be primed to harass him wherever he goes, shrieking about austerity, cuts and homelessness. 

But there is nothing to fear from the weather

Political Correspondent, Larisa Brown: The first Christmas election in Britain since 1923 represents ‘uncharted territory’ — but voters are still likely to turn out, a top political academic said last night.

Elections expert Sir John Curtice downplayed claims that voters would stay at home because of the cold weather and early nights. But it would be the first time in history that an election had taken place in the days before what has become a major secular holiday.

Sir John said: ‘This is the first time where you’ve had an election in December against the backdrop of the biggest shut down in the year. We are in uncharted territory.’

But he added: ‘You can just about get away with December 12. It is sufficiently before people start going half way across the country to see relatives, or off on their holidays abroad.’

Sir John, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, pointed out that there was a record turnout of 83.9 per cent in the winter election of 1950 and 78 per cent in 1974.

The winter of 1974 was a particularly ‘gruelling winter’ he said because of the coal miners’ strike which affected electricity.

He added: ‘If our great grandparents who didn’t have central heating and were relying on gas lighting could manage, why can’t we?

‘We have a level of commitment to Remain or Leave of the kind we have not seen in party politics since the Sixties.’

Opposition parties have claimed an election close to Christmas could irritate voters, while campaigning and getting the vote out could be hampered by cold weather.

There are also concerns that venues such as church halls that would normally act as polling stations could be booked up in the run-up to Christmas for festive events.

Laura Lock, of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said her members have been making calls, and finding many of the usual venues already have bookings.

Last night, it also emerged that election officials are pressing for the right to delay an election count to the following day if severe weather puts the safety of their staff at risk.

They fear travelling may be far more dangerous for officials who could face 100-mile round trips at night on treacherous roads to deliver ballot boxes to the counts.


If he skulks behind his media minders, he will be accused of cowardice. But if he ventures out on the streets, he risks the evening TV news being dominated by film of his shouting critics. The brutal truth is that Mr Johnson cannot expect to control the political narrative. He may tell us that this is a ‘Brexit election’ and insist it’s a clear choice between decision and delay.

But elections never work out simply. As soon as the campaign begins, the focus will turn to the classic bread-and-butter issues of the economy, housing, schools and the NHS. And after ten years in office, the Tories will need compelling answers, as well as clear, constructive plans for the next five years.

In my more pessimistic moments, I can’t help thinking of our last winter election, the ‘Who Governs?’ campaign of February 1974.

Then, as now, a controversial Tory PM went to the country asking for a mandate for decisive action in the national interest.

Then, it was Edward Heath, who urged voters to back him against the striking National Union of Mineworkers.

But Heath lost control of the election debate.

Besieged by public anxieties about housing, the economy and the cost of living, the Tories ended up haemorrhaging votes to the Liberals. 

The election produced a hung parliament and a deeply divided Labour Party took over, under the ageing but nevertheless victorious Harold Wilson.

I doubt I’m alone in finding that a chilling precedent. 

For if today’s Tories think it could never happen again, they are deluding themselves. 

And given the state of today’s Labour Party, the stakes are even higher now.

Whatever his faults, Wilson was a patriot, who always tried to put Britain first. 

No fair-minded observer would ever say the same of Jeremy Corbyn.

So we come back to Boris Johnson’s great gamble with history.

It is true that all great politicians are risk-takers. 

To be a politician in the first place, you stake your career on the whims of innumerable individual voters, whose hopes and anxieties are often clouded by mystery. 

And the higher you climb, the higher the stakes.

But rarely in modern times has any prime minister taken such a gamble. My goodness, it had better work.

Source: Read Full Article