Boris Johnson’s Fight Against the 2017 Nightmare

With only a few weeks to go until the UK general election, the opinion polls are suggesting that the Conservatives are definitively heading for a majority. Data must be read with some scepticism, but there is a strong chance that the Tories, led by Boris Johnson, will win the elections with a big majority unless numbers change in the next two weeks.

The latest Opinium poll published by The Guardian shows that Tories have taken a commanding 19-point lead over Labour, meaning that their share of the vote now stands at 47%, with Labour on 28% and the Lib Dems falling back to 12%.

The Brexit party is also struggling, with only 3% after winning the European elections, last May, with 32%.

As Brexit still dominates the political campaign, the Tories’ success could be explained by the capacity of attracting support from Leave voters: three-quarters of them say they would vote Conservative even if they never have before.

This best-case scenario can be likened to one the Conservative party was facing two years ago. Theresa May was heading 20 points ahead of Jeremy Corbyn when, suddenly, the situation collapsed a few weeks before the election day.

Same premises, same adversary, but a different Tory leader.

Boris Johnson is traumatized by 2017 and as a consequence, he is now trying to avoid the breakdown endured by his predecessor Theresa May, gambling that the growing fear of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government will push more people to vote for him. People are supposed to believe that ‘a hard Brexit and a Boris Johnson government’ would be better than Corbyn’s supposedly outdated-socialist-plans for Great Britain’s future.

The 2017 scenario

“That this is a peculiar election goes without saying,” Steven McCabe, senior Fellow at the Birmingham City University, said.

“It’s the third in four years because of David Cameron’s decision to include a commitment in the 2015 Conservative Party election manifesto to have a referendum on EU membership”. In McCabe’s view, Cameron’s mistake was assuming that the referendum would be easy to win on the official government line of remaining within the EU.

The former PM was wrong. He was defeated and resigned.

Theresa May, the second woman to serve as the Prime Minister of the UK after Margaret Thatcher, entered Downing Street under the pledge to deliver Brexit.

To do that, she needed a stable majority but the ERG was not helping. So, ‘trusting the veracity of the opinion polls’, May believed that she could increase her majority – Mr McCabe explains – and side-line Eurosceptics by ‘rolling the dice’ and calling for a general election.

She lost both her gambles.

After the 2017 election, she lost 13 seats, she didn’t get the majority she had hoped to obtain and was forced to rely on the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party). Last but not least, she was unable to deliver Brexit as promised.

It makes no surprise that Boris Johnson’s campaign is now focusing on distancing himself from his predecessors, vowing he will deliver Brexit right after the elections so that a new wave of energy ‘will be released’ overcoming austerity and ‘allowing the country to get back on with life’ after ‘taking back control’.

“My hunch is that Mr Johnson’s desperate gamble will succeed in its terms, because of the bizarre symmetry between himself and Jeremy Corbyn, the only conceivable Labour leader he may be able to defeat at an early general election,” Mr Max Hastings, former editor at the Daily Telegraph and ex-boss of Boris Johnson, told to Talk Radio.

Learn from May’s manifesto lesson

By the time the UK parliament was dissolved at end of October, the two main parties’ campaign machines were already at work preparing for the December 12 elections.

“We were much more advanced than when Theresa May called her election in 2017,” one adviser said adding that the Conservative had a bounce in membership since Johnson became Prime Minister.

On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn is struggling on his campaign with antisemitism accusations and low personal poll ratings.

The mainstream parties reflect the very different lessons learnt by each one from the 2017 election. 

Corbyn has always been considered a good campaigner and he believes he will replicate the party’s 2017 election strategy, which saw the Labour party defy predictions and unexpectedly gain 30 seats in parliament. 

But this time he is not challenging Theresa May but Boris Johnson.

The Conservatives’ leader begun with a clear lead in the polls and his team is wary of how harshly wrong May’s political decisions and personal behaviours were two years ago.

The team of Tories’ advisers is planning a radically different campaign in the hope that this time they will secure a success and a parliamentary majority.

The lesson learned from the 2017 fiasco has been successfully applied and the campaign looks disciplined and focussed so far.
Theresa May’s trajectory started downward after the big mistake was made.

A botched manifesto launch, on May 20, and the following arguments over the unpopular social care policy, dubbed the “dementia tax”, added in May’s weak performance in the campaign trail combined to play the major part in the collapse in her poll ratings.

As a consequence, the health secretary Matthew Hancock indicates the Tories are not committing to a firm policy on reforming adult social care in the manifesto, saying they would instead seek to work with other parties to build a cross-party consensus later on.

Johnson’s manifesto, as a result, is considered very unambitious, some MPs also claim it is not enough ‘One-nation Conservatism’ as they believe there are so few promises in it that they would put an end to the austerity.

A general election about Brexit

This election was supposedly called to settle Brexit, people have been repeatedly told that they are going to the polls for the third time in less than four years to resolve this great issue once and for all.

As the Conservatives want this to be an election about Brexit, the focus is about delivering it by the 31st of January and leaving the EU within the next year, which is unlikely to happen, according to experts.

Johnson’s big slogan is a promise to “Get Brexit done” by passing his deal through parliament before Christmas and banking on weariness in the country about a further referendum.

“Assuming Johnson wins the election and puts the Withdrawal Act Bill he temporarily withdrew a couple of weeks ago,” Mr McCabe explained “has stated he’ll put it back to Parliament so the UK leaves the EU by 31st January. This would leave 11 months to negotiate a free trade agreement with the UK by 31st December 2020, a timetable considered extremely difficult by experts.”

Speaking in a lecture at Glasgow University, former UK envoy to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, explained that ‘gain such a deal could easily take a decade’.

“Rogers believes that by the end of next year the UK will face its ‘biggest crisis of Brexit to date’ and claimed that to avoid the calamity of no-deal, Mr Johnson might, like his predecessor Theresa May, find himself ‘unwisely’ constrained by campaign promises made during his successful bid to become leader of his party and during this election,” McCabe concluded.

Women’s touch

As a weak point, polling show the Prime Minister’s popularity has slumped among female voters since he took office last July after a series of rows about sexism and allegations concerning his private life.

According to a YouGov poll last month, 47% of female voters found him ‘dislikeable’ – up seven points since the end of August – and five points higher than among men.

Mr Johnson said the Tories must ‘mobilise and support’ the female vote to stay in power.

Pointing out his manifesto was written by two women he said: “If you want any evidence of our commitment to having a wonderful agenda, I can tell you that the Conservative manifesto was drawn up by two particularly brilliant women, Munira Mirza and Rachel Wolf”.

Munira Mirza, 41, is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants; she heads up the Downing Street Policy Unit and has been a close ally of Mr Johnson since his run as Mayor of London, serving as his main policy adviser.

Rachel Wolf, 33, is the daughter of economics pundit Martin Wolf of the Financial Times and a key figure in Mr Johnson’s inner circle. She worked for Mr Johnson in 2006 when he was Shadow Education Minister

And in a dig at Ms May, whose 2017 Election imploded after an extremely hostile reaction by voters to her manifesto, Mr Johnson insisted their work is a ‘short, concise outline with no hostages to fortune’.

May and Johnson: The manager and the dishevelled

Johnson is considered to be a much better campaigner than May was, as it is hard to be worse, campaign chiefs at Tory HQ believe.

Love him or hate him, he is a figure that dominates the scenes, he looks strong and stronger than his predecessor and some voters will appreciate that, even if they are not natural Tories’ voters.

Boris Johnson, as a child, wanted to be “world king”, Theresa May didn’t and that’s for sure.

Remarkably, May did not enjoy being in the limelight yet her party’s campaign was built around her.

She was not comfortable when asked personal questions and she didn’t want the campaign to be about her, or her private life.

Despite his love for Winston Churchill, as an orator, “Johnson mumbles and rumbles, he’s not exactly Churchillian,” professor Eunice Goes, expert on British Politics at Richmond University, said.

That’s the reason why the Conservative staff avoids media interviews and is using him in a sparingly and strategic way.

Theresa May was ‘kind of a manager’ more than a visionary politician,  whereas Boris Johnson is essentially a personality-driven politician, divisive, but a strong leader.

“She was a very serious politician, perhaps not much fun, but she was someone you could rely on,” Ms Goes, added.

She was a ‘details politician’ and somebody who tried to negotiate even if she failed when her unceasing negotiations with the EU came to the parliament’s vote.

“Deliver Brexit is Boris Johnson’ focus but, as for the rest of the agenda, the bright future that he says will be unleashed after Brexit we do not know,” Ms Goes explained adding that we do not know the detail of that vision.

‘Get Brexit done’ is what BoJo claims, repeats and harshly wants, for now.

Johnson is known for being a person who does not pay attention to detail and this default might come back to haunt him if his party wins a majority and he will find himself at N10, once again.

The same default would come down to haunt him and he will have to face it when, if elected, he will start going to Brussels over and over again to negotiate the new agreement with the European Union.

Johnson hasn’t shown he is a visionary politician, yet.

Casting it as a ‘people versus parliament’ election, portraying himself on the side of the electorate, BoJo wants to frame himself as an anti-establishment candidate despite his privileged background and a lifetime spent in politics.

Which is the future of the Conservative party?

“The Conservative party is the oldest party in Britain,” professor Tony Travers,  LSE Department of Government, said. “Their success is the result of an amazing capacity to adapt to survive so long and to change in circumstances,” Mr Travers concluded.

After the Brexit issue exploded in the Country in 2016, becoming the Tories’ kind of obsession, the party started to change and transform itself.

“For half a century, division over Europe has been a poison seeping into the party, which has now reached its vital organs,” Max Hastings, former editor at the Daily Telegraph, told the Financial Times.

“It is sometimes suggested that the Tories are pragmatists, who care much more about the acquisition and maintenance of power than about pursuing any principle,” Sir Hastings added.

The thing is the Conservative party as we used to know it, a lightly right-of-centre alliance, seems not to exist anymore.

“The Tories used to be a very large tent accommodating many different views,” Ms Goes explains. Those views spread from the extreme to the moderated right-wing issues. Now things have changed, the centre-ones are gone standing down at the election or fighting as Independent or joining the Liberal Democrats as a reaction to the party’s descent into extremism.

The remaining conservative MPs and Boris’ cabinet are likely to turn the party into something different, a thing apart from the centre-ground Tories’ party we’ve known so far.

The question is: who is now going to develop and defend the moderate agenda inside the Conservative party?

“Boris Johnson on his own is an empty vessel; today he defends higher spending for the NHS, tomorrow he will defend the privatization of the NHS. He has shown no credibility in terms of the values he defends because the only thing that matters is himself and to defending his career,” professor Goes concluded. 

The Labour party, in its history, has often suffered ideological nervous breakdowns. Now it is the turn of the Conservatives and if their path is going to become a soft version of himself it remains to be seen.