Boris Johnson is desperate to hold a general election, but why should opposition lawmakers give him a poll on his terms, asks Denis MacShane.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe, and a former Labour MP.
In politics as in war, it usually advisable not to do what your enemy or opponent wants. It has been clear since he entered Downing Street that Boris Johnson wants more than anything else to fight an election on the theme of the 17.4 million Brexit voters in 2016 against all others – the Commons, the Supreme Court, Brussels.
Brexit is secondary to Johnson’s need for his own populist mandate which is why he even proposed dissolving Parliament to allow an election in October. This was stymied by an unusual alliance of Labour, LibDems, the SNP, and Tory MPs including Winston Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames.
Johnson hopes to fight an election similar to the 1918 election called opportunistically by British premier Lloyd George just after the World War One defeat of Germany to cash in on the wave of nationalist self-satisfaction that swept through Britain with calls for “Hang the Kaiser” and demands for massive reparations from Germany.
A so-called “coupon” was given to all Liberal and Tory candidates who endorsed Lloyd George as Prime Minister. The anti-Tory Liberal MPs were routed leading to the Liberals’ disappearance as a party of government. Fairly quickly the Tories spat out Lloyd George and set out on their long period of 20th century political dominance.
Today, there is earnest talk in Brexit circles of Johnson awarding similar endorsement to candidates who support his desire for an amputational Brexit, including some kind of agreement, informal and unwritten but a pact nonetheless with Nigel Farage to allow a number of Brexit aligned MPs to be elected.
In the Commons he did not refer to ‘the Opposition” but rather “this Parliament”. For Johnson Parliament is now the opposition. Johnson said MPs would “face the day of reckoning with voters” and called the Hilary Benn law insisting he must avoid a No Deal the “surrender bill”. The UK Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was even more virulent referring a ‘a dead parliament’ in the language of anti-parliament populism throughout the ages.
The question to be answered is why any opposition party should do what Johnson wants? Each has its own reasons. The SNP believe they can win most seats in Scotland. The LibDems hope that their good showing in the European Parliament election can translate into many more parliamentary seats. Their new leader, Jo Swinson, has to prove she can reverse the disastrous loss of seats under Nick Clegg in 2015.
Labour, or at least the Jeremy Corbyn leadership in Labour, believe there will be a re-run of 2017 even though the Tories won more votes than Labour. He and other shadow cabinet members past or close to retirement age have one chance left to be in government.
Yet Corbyn, Swinson and Sturgeon are taking a huge risk in accepting the Johnson premise that an election is necessary and should be held soon, if not quite instantly as the hard Brexit team in the cabinet would wish.
This plays right into Johnson’s hands. Holding an election solves little. Johnson may win or as the UK’s leading poll guru Sir John Curtice points out a more likely outcome is another hung parliament. Johnson and any other minority government prime minister would go to Brussels unable to put anything through the Commons.
The EU settled policy of not accepting British access to the Single Market without respect for its laws and of defending peace in Ireland would not change just because the UK held an election.
Far better would be to insist that the British people are asked again sometime during the next six months. There are so many new facts, new voters, and a new understanding of what Brexit entails. There were 52 million voting age citizens in June 2016. 17.4 million voted for Brexit. 34.6 million did not. They cannot be written out of democracy.
The best way to challenge and defeat Johnson is not by conceding his fervent wish for a populist coupon Brexit general election either soon on in some extension period but to insist on the right of the people to be consulted and then unlike 2016 for the opposition parties and anti-Brexit Tories to unite in an effective campaign to put the facts before the people.