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The Brexit Election

Matthew Elliott

The general election campaign is barely two weeks old and it is already the strangest in living memory. We have the curious spectacle of major party leaders refusing to stand for a seat, former Ministers recommending we vote against their old parties and selected candidates declining to campaign and encouraging tactical voting for other parties in their seat.

This is the Brexit election – a campaign and a vote likely to be dominated by an issue that means the suspension of traditional party loyalties and political hostilities. The 2016 referendum campaign, Leave vote and subsequent political maelstrom reveals the fragmentation of the traditional two party system, where in large swathes of the country we can observe four- or even five-party politics. The 2019 election outcome will show the extent to which the electorate is undergoing a fundamental realignment along Leave-Remain lines which, for many people, now trump (no pun intended) their traditional party allegiances.

Leave supporters have come to see this as their final opportunity to leave the EU in an orderly fashion. Their Remain opponents know they must defeat Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage at the ballot box to have a chance of holding another referendum to overturn the 2016 vote. As the nominations closed last Thursday, the Remain parties appeared more divided than the nascent Leave alliance.

Nigel Farage has stood down Brexit Party candidates in the 317 seats the Tories won in 2017 – although he will run representatives in Labour-held marginal constituencies which CCHQ believes they need to secure a majority. Polling still indicates a continuing fall in Brexit Party support since Boris became Prime Minister, even more so since Farage tacitly endorsed Boris’s deal. The Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the Greens have agreed to give each other’s candidates a free run in 60 seats around England and Wales.

Labour have conspicuously absented themselves from the Remain pact, exacerbated by the fact that the Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has been vehemently critical of Jeremy Corbyn, saying she would not put him into Downing Street.

Because of their convoluted Brexit position and split amongst their voters, Labour have entered this campaign wishing to avoid both Brexit and freedom of movement altogether. Although the party received a relatively significant boost of 6 points as the election was called, the chances of Labour winning an overall majority look extremely remote given their weakness in Scotland.

On Saturday, Labour high command signed-off what John McDonnell describes as the party’s most radical manifesto ever, with plans to introduce a universal basic income, free broadband and drastic measures to tackle the climate emergency. The party hopes to convince enough Remain voters, often living in large cities and university towns, that voting Labour is their best opportunity to eventually stop Brexit altogether.

But the best electoral outcome Corbyn can realistically hope for is to have the opportunity to cobble together a rainbow coalition in a hung parliament. Depending on coalition negotiations, this would likely result in the new Government renegotiating a softer Brexit deal with the EU and putting this up against Remain in a second referendum.

In contrast, the Tory message is clear: only a workable Conservative majority will result in us leaving the EU by 31st January 2020. Boris wants to get Brexit done and unleash the potential of the country – beginning with more spending on education, the NHS and more police officers.

Their manifesto, likely to be very short this time around, will have policies to appeal to ‘Workington Man’ and other Leavers concentrated in small towns and post-industrial English cities who want to reassert British sovereignty and manage immigration. In this key battleground the questions for the Tories will be can they hold onto the Leave voters Theresa May won over in 2017? And will enough Remain Labour voters switch to the Lib Dems to split the non-Tory vote?

To offset the likely loss of pro-EU seats in Scotland and southern England, the Tories will require gains in the north of England and in the Midlands – where Boris launched their general election campaign in Birmingham. The Tories will need a 10-point lead to be confident of a majority, anything less risks delivering the third hung parliament in four elections.

Few have disputed that the country is still divided on the Brexit issue. As things stand, the indicators show the only route to breaking the deadlock is a workable majority for Boris’s withdrawal deal. But the future is never certain and, in recent years, conventional political wisdom has been regularly disproved in the most dramatic fashion at election time.

Matthew Elliott was CEO of Vote Leave and is a Senior Adviser to MHP.