On the day the Commons reconvened after its summer recess, a rally was due to gather across the road in Parliament Square. The publicity for the event declared: “Stop Boris Johnson — We demand a general election now!”
It must have come as quite a shock to the speakers — including some front bench Labour MPs and public intellectual Tariq Ali — to learn that their demand for an immediate election would, by late that same evening, have been shelved on the advice of none other than Tony Blair.
Jeremy Corbyn, having demanded an early election on a daily basis for the last two years, has apparently been persuaded of the wisdom of Blair’s warning that Boris Johnson’s offer of a poll next month was an “elephant trap” which Labour would do well to avoid.
No doubt the former Labour leader and prime minister was prioritising the fight against Brexit — particularly of the no-deal variety — but the effect of his advice being heeded by Labour has resulted in Corbyn appearing defensive. His unconditional and enthusiastic support for an immediate election has now been qualified and watered down. There are good reasons for this, specifically his desire for a new Bill delaying Britain’s departure from the EU onto the statute books, which an immediate general election would imperil.
Topsy turvy politics
In a topsy-turvy fashion entirely suited to our modern political era, this latest development gives immense power to Corbyn. Only he can decide whether or not, and when, an election is held. And he knows that if Johnson is forced by legislation to concede an extension to Article 50, any election held after October 31 would probably be disastrous for the Conservatives.
But that an election is imminent can hardly be doubted. Who will emerge as the eventual victor in that contest is less clear-cut than the polls suggest. And as in 2017, the opportunity for Labour to spring a surprise victory should not be dismissed by the prime minister and his advisers.
Labour, and Corbyn personally, has lost support in the last six months because of their ambiguous approach to a second EU referendum. Even this week, Corbyn has successfully framed the debate over opposition to a “no deal” Brexit, rather than to Brexit itself (which happens to be the position of most of his MPs). In the past this has created an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats, as we saw in the European Parliament elections. But if, at the start of the campaign, Corbyn commits, without prevarication, to a second referendum, with Remain as an option, they could immediately win back many former supporters who have abandoned them.
True, Corbyn is not entirely trusted by many Remain voters who suspect he doesn’t share their adoration of the EU. But when faced with the prospect of a Johnson majority government determined to keep a no-deal Brexit on the table, the choice for them will be easier than is supposed. Under a first-past-the-post electoral system, in which only one of the two main parties can realistically be expected to lead the next government, binary choices are easier to offer and to make.
That is not the kind of campaign Corbyn wants to fight: he is far more comfortable talking about the NHS, austerity and jobs. And he will fret that Labour’s transformation into a devout Remain party will lose dozens of seats north of Watford that voted Leave in 2016. But the constructive ambiguity that worked so well for the party in 2017 won’t work this time; it’s time for Corbyn to pick a side. The last three years have hardened and heightened ordinary voters’ views of Brexit and the EU. Even two years ago, it might have been expected that traditional party loyalty would trump whatever the Brexit policy of those parties happened to be. That no longer applies.
More voters than ever consider themselves Remainers or Leavers before they identify themselves as Labour or Conservative. That could help Corbyn overcome the doubts and suspicions that Remain voters might have over his historic associations. In the age of Brexit, more voters are willing to place a cross against a candidate whose party they don’t particularly like, so long as it helps them achieve their overarching aims.
That cuts both ways, of course, and Johnson can expect to recruit new supporters who have previously voted Labour but who are anxious to make progress on honouring the EU referendum result. This provides the Conservatives with an opportunity and a risk. Turning the general election into a second referendum itself, where voters must choose Leave or Remain, will help attract Brexit Party supporters back into the Tory fold. But Johnson will face a mirror image of Labour’s problem: the potential loss of Remain-voting constituencies to the Liberal Democrats.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Tom Harris is a former UK Labour MP and journalist. He served as a minister in the administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.