Brexit, Long Reads

And we’re off… we think?

This is the first in a series of short blogs/think pieces (call them what you will) on a forthcoming General Election from the Wales Governance Centre.

As academics and keen politics-watchers, we’ll be offering our thoughts and analysis on events as they unfold. A couple of disclaimers first: the truth is, whatever anyone tells you, no one really knows what might happen. At best we can list the gamut of things that could happen, but the problem is determining which is more likely and that is one heck of a moving feast.

However the stakes are incredibly high and, mindful of a sense that debates have been conducted at a level that excludes and obfuscates, we’re aiming to make these contributions accessible and relatively light. One commentator likened current politics to looking through one of those toy kaleidoscopes – moving it a millimetre means the picture changes dramatically. Even with Parliament now prorogued until 14 October, that’s what we are all up against. So in the spirit of getting your excuses in early, anything we say might well be overtaken by events.

Number 10’s proposed prorogation of Parliament unleashed a chain of events that make the saying ‘a week’s a long time in politics’ look a massive understatement. But it’s less about looking back, and more about looking ahead to an inevitable UK General Election and considering what this might mean for Wales.

When will an election happen?

We now know that the election might now be later rather than sooner (perhaps not even this year) but happen it will. That’s because the government has lost its tiny majority in style, first with the very public crossing of the floor by Tory MP Dr Phillip Lee (who joined the Liberal Democrats), then the brutal scything of 21 so-called ‘rebel’ Conservatives who supported the no-deal legislation and then further ministerial resignations. Fairly obviously, it’s significant because of the Halloween Brexit deadline and the prospects of no deal, delay or revocation. Whether it’s a purely ‘Brexit election’ remains to be seen (voters do have other concerns), but Brexit will undoubtedly shape the type of campaign and probably the outcome.

If nothing else the past fortnight has been a useful lesson in parliamentary and constitutional matters, so we all now know that the Prime Minister can’t call an election under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011. What he can do is table a motion that needs the support of at least 434 MPs. But last Wednesday, Johnson could only command the support of 298 MPs and last night it was 293.

Now, elections are always a gamble (ask Theresa May), but holding an election in November is a risk for both main parties. Whatever Labour currently says, it’s going to be reliant on Remainers having pretty faulty, short-term memories and deciding to trust the party (instead of the Liberal Democrats) after two years of public prevarication on Brexit. Alongside this, it needs to avoid haemorrhaging its Leave voters in some crucial seats.

What kind of election will it be?

It’s not going to be pleasant! No one expects anything other than a nasty, bitter, febrile, internecine campaign and much of that will be acted out within (never mind between) the two biggest parties. It looks to be an election based on choosing the least unpopular party and leader.

A few weeks ago, it looked as if Labour had the biggest problems with defections, anti-Semitism and appalling, plummeting approval ratings for Jeremy Corbyn. But the hard-line strategy pursued by Johnson is straight from the Cummings Leave campaign play book, appealing to the hardcore Brexiteers and, in doing so, neutralising the Brexit Party and flushing out those not signed up to his Brexit ‘do or die’ strategy. Of course, this includes some of the 4 out of 10 Tories who voted Remain.

So, both party leaders represent the extremes in their own parties, never mind promoting some middle way. Given neither side is united, the election can scarcely be anything other than divisive. We know that most elections are fought and won on the middle ground. Usually that is crowded territory, but not this time. Forget 2016, Johnson is untested on the election campaign trail and Corbyn’s inadvertent exploitation of his freshness and authenticity in 2017 is a card that’s hard to play twice.

Last week also gave us a taste of the likely switch to a Trumpian-style campaigning with Boris Johnson’s attempt to appeal to the ‘other’ concerns of voters like crime, health and education, posing in front of banks of police cadets in Yorkshire. Aside from one officer nearly fainting, this looked manipulative, staged and hardly in keeping with British election campaigning. It’s not as if it even played to Johnson’s strengths; suffering the dual personal and political blow of his brother Jo quitting as an MP and a Minister that morning, the Prime Minister looked tired, stumbling and disorientated.

Will an election resolve anything?

At the moment that seems very unlikely. We have already seen a splintering of two party politics (the 2017 General Election increasingly looks an outlier) and as long as Brexit is unresolved, there will be the shadow of the Brexit Party in the wings, which from a standing start gained a third of votes cast in May’s European elections and loves the sound of no deal. If its support still hovers in double figures, it has skin in the game. Until now the Leave side has had a more impressive unity that the Remain side and whilst No Deal is on the table Farage and co will keep mum – but after that?

Meanwhile the Remain alliance, which at the very least was extremely helpful in this summer’s Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, faces its own problems. It’s hard to see where a Remain alliance might actually deliver in Wales. The Liberal Democrats are unlikely to stand down in Ceredigion (maybe in key Plaid target of Ynys Môn or Arfon though) and the best Plaid can offer is somewhere like Cardiff Central (not easy and a fight between two Remain parties). And if we see a party ‘win’ the election with a third of the popular vote that should signal the death knell of First Past the Post, that is, if there was any head space to think about anything bar Brexit!

What might happen in Wales?

It’s hard to know for sure whether Wales will prove to be a major battleground, mainly because the very definition of a ‘safe seat’ is up for grabs and there’s not much point piling up votes in some constituencies. This election will be all about the key seats where people can be persuaded to switch allegiance. UK-wide, the Conservatives’ quest for a majority starts badly and they know that they’ll need to win seats off the Liberal Democrats and Labour. This means that there are plenty of seats in Wales that look interesting. There are obvious ones like Gower, Cardiff North, Vale of Clwyd, Vale of Glamorgan, Llanelli, but also Bridgend, Newport West, Ynys Môn , and Ceredigion. There may well be others by the time of election day.

Scotland, meanwhile, is guaranteed to be interesting as the SNP looks poised to once again come close to wiping out Tory representation there. The SNP could win 11 or more of the 13 Tory seats, helped by the resignation of the popular, moderate Ruth Davidson and the consistent and seemingly impregnable support for the SNP, now government veterans of 12 years. SNP success has reverberations for Wales of course, as the elevation of independence will affect shifts between the ‘Indy curious’ and ‘Indy committed’ here.

Polling isn’t going to help much either due to the pace of events and the impact of individual candidates and local factors. I’m also concerned about how much of the latest shenanigans actually cuts through to voters. Yes, BBC Parliament saw a healthy spike in viewers at the moment of peak drama, but many people simply digested the 6 o’clock news or newspaper headlines; it would be wise to show some caution about impact, despite the dominant social media indignation. For many, Johnson is still viewed as decisive and pugnacious on Brexit, and this might play well to some parts of Leave Wales.

What does the future look like?

Self-evidently, the UK’s political future looks set to continue to be chaotic. An election is unlikely to resolve the biggest issue of our time and a second referendum is on Labour, Plaid and the Lib Dems’ agenda. Depending on the election outcome, and conceivably even before, there could be a complete recalibration of at least one of the dominant parties and that could create spaces for new parties or mergers.

Whatever the outcome, it’ll likely be an immediate blame game – who caused a Brexit no deal, who caused it not to happen, who allowed a delay, who allowed a fractious, anarchic parliament to stumble on for months? At present, both of the large parties may well be following ‘too clever by half’ strategies. One of them – and maybe both in the longer term – will be proved to have been mistaken.


Professor Laura McAllister is Professor of Public Policy in the School of Law and Politics and the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

This post represents the views of the author and neither those of the Politics & Governance blog nor Cardiff University.

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