In three years, two British Conservative Prime Ministers have fallen from office on the tripwire of their own European policy. The incumbent has constructed a new approach to this historic conundrum but both history and current evidence have some cautionary messages for the prime minister.
Johnson has already refused to contemplate revisiting his predecessor’s Withdrawal Agreement from the EU unless the so-called ‘backstop’ arrangements regarding Northern Ireland (now emphatically renamed the “undemocratic backstop” by government ministers) are abandoned. EU leaders, renowned for almost endless patience in negotiating, have declined to resume talks under these circumstances. This makes an outcome of Brexit without any agreement all but inevitable.
Johnson’s second change is as yet trailed but not formally announced: to hold a general election either before, but in practice more likely after, a ‘no deal’ Brexit at the end of October, on the theme of ‘the people versus the politicians.’ Johnson aims to present himself as the champion of popular opinion as expressed in the 2016 referendum against a patronising and detached establishment – in parliament, the courts and the media – which is determined to frustrate its implementation. This is a high-stakes strategy for which the current evidence looks good, but the historical precedents are more mixed.
The opinion of the public as demonstrated in elections and polls seems static since 2016: evenly divided between Leavers and Remainers, though now Remainers are divided between those resigned to defeat and those determined to seek a new referendum, and Leavers are split over the type of new relationship with the EU they would prefer. Johnson hopes to unite Leavers by marginalising the Brexit Party, whilst Remain opinion is divided between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and other opposition parties. This could grant him a parliamentary majority even with significantly less than half the vote (bear in mind Blair won a majority of 60 on 35 per cent in 2005).
There are however two problems here: one is Johnson himself. He is untested electorally at a national level, and his initial ‘bounce’ in the polls is no better than Theresa May’s or Gordon Brown’s. His credentials as a man of the people are slim: he has been an elected politician for most of his adult life and spent his childhood at the school which has been the nursery of 20 prime ministers, before attending which he declared it his ambition to be ‘World King’. Boris is the consummate politician; he is an outsider only to everyday British life.
Secondly, the history of populist, binary confrontational appeals at British elections offers as much discouragement as hope to the prime minister. The ‘Peers vs the People’ campaign led by the Liberals in defence of Lloyd George’s radical budget blocked by a self-interested House of Lords ended in the loss of the Liberals’ three-figure majority and a parliamentary stalemate resolved by the support of Irish MPs. Some simplistic slogans prompted counter-claims or misread the public mood. In 1945 Churchill’s “Help him Finish the Job” was successfully answered by Labour’s “Help them finish their job!” over images of servicemen looking to the future. The Conservatives’ “New Labour, New Danger” campaign of 1997 was suspended because focus groups showed the public did not understand what was ‘new’ about the threat posed by Blair.
The deepest danger to Johnson’s proposed slogan is that one version has it as “the people versus parliament”, acknowledging that the UK is not a Trump-style system of presidential rule, but an embedded parliamentary democracy. There may yet be a British popular memory of this which goes back to 1910 and even to the Charles I’s fatal arrogance towards parliament. Johnson might be sloganised not as the man of the people but as ‘King Boris.’ Perhaps the prime minister should be careful what he wishes for.