Boris Johnson as Prime Minister: Electoral Implications

Tom Hamilton

If anyone can draw votes back from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, it is Boris. It could be enough to win, but this path to victory is fraught with obvious dangers.

Until a few months ago, there was no question that Boris Johnson was a terrible choice to be leader of the Conservative Party. Alone of all the possible candidates, he had the nightmare polling combination of high name recognition and low popularity (well-known popular candidates win general elections; well-known unpopular candidates lose them; unknown candidates start with low popularity but low negatives too, and have the potential to win the public over).

The case for Boris Johnson, in the eyes of his supporters, was based on denying the latest polling and relying instead on an outdated claim that he really is both well-known and popular, evidenced by the fact that he had twice won mayoral elections in usually Labour-leaning London, that his leading role in the Leave campaign was a decisive factor in its victory in the referendum, and that they liked his jokes.

The argument against him was that Johnson is indeed well-known, but also widely disliked – more disliked than any other candidate. He did indeed win in London twice, but in 2008 did so against a tired eight-year incumbent, Ken Livingstone, after eleven years of a Labour government then led by the unpopular Gordon Brown – and he did so not by winning round liberal cosmopolitan inner London Labour voters but by mobilising affluent Tory suburban outer London boroughs more effectively than Labour was able to turn out its own vote. And in 2016 he really did help Leave win – but in doing so he incinerated any popularity he might once have had among liberal Remain voters, and turned himself into a deeply polarising figure.

In a world where the two main parties were polling close to their possible ceiling, at not far off 40% each, as they were as recently as earlier this year, selecting a leader whose popularity had peaked years ago and whose downside risk hugely exceeded his upside potential was an obvious mistake.

That all changed this spring, with the collapse of both main parties’ votes, as the new Brexit Party and the reinvigorated Liberal Democrats leached both Labour and Tory votes from Leavers and Remainers respectively.

The European Parliament elections showed that we are suddenly – for the time being at least – in an unfamiliar political world, with four parties on around 20% of the vote each. And that transforms the nature of the Conservative Party’s challenge in trying to win the next election. Instead of holding onto 40%, they need to get to 30%, perhaps a bit more, and stay there, so long as Labour is incapable of making a similar recovery.

This is where Johnson’s unique appeal comes in. Because if anyone can draw votes back from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, it is Boris. And it could be enough to win.

This path to victory is fraught with obvious dangers. The once very large pro-European Tory vote, which was a crucial part of David Cameron’s coalition in 2010 and 2015, may not return from the Liberal Democrats any time soon, and that puts swathes of Tory seats at risk to both them and Labour. Labour may recover, if enough of its pro-Remain former voters decide that their desire for a Labour government, or their dislike of Boris Johnson and the Conservatives, trumps their desire to stop Brexit or their suspicions about Jeremy Corbyn (especially if Johnson is finally able to deliver Brexit and Labour is finally able to do what Corbyn has been desperate to do for the last two years and change the subject).

The biggest danger, though, is Brexit. Boris Johnson has pledged to deliver it by 31 October, come what may, and this may not be within his power. The parliamentary maths which defeated Theresa May have not changed, and governing in a hung parliament is a hard slog (as the Conservative leadership contest, in which candidates tossed out shiny promises as if they would be in any position to implement them, breezily failed to acknowledge). If Johnson cannot negotiate a new Brexit deal which satisfies Parliament, there are plenty of MPs, many of them Conservatives, who would seek to block a no-deal Brexit. It is not at all clear whether they have the means, but they have the will – and Johnson’s key campaign theme, of course, is that if you will something enough, you can achieve it.

If Parliament does block Brexit, Johnson will have a strong argument that he needs a majority to deliver it – but he will have to take the risk of having an election to get one, and will have to do it quickly so as not to vindicate Nigel Farage’s betrayal narrative. After all, if Johnson fails to deliver the Brexit he promised it will be his personal failure, and Brexit Party voters will not flock back to him just because he sounds cross about it. Meanwhile, if the UK leaves the EU without a deal on 31 October, Johnson will be well placed to see off Farage. But he will also own all the real-world consequences of no deal, which may not be to his electoral advantage. The only time for Boris Johnson to call an election in which he has neither failed his own test of delivering Brexit, nor pushed the country out of the EU without a deal, may be this autumn. And while that could give him the majority, and the freedom to act, that he needs, it also leaves open the prospect that his premiership could be very short indeed.

Tom is an Associate Director in MHP’s Public Affairs team. Prior to joining MHP, he was a Labour Adviser for 10 years – most recently as Head of Policy to Labour Deputy Leader, Tom Watson.