Richard North, 28/07/2019  

I sometimes think that the only things that turn on the UK political media are speculation about whether there will be a general election, and then following the damn thing when it is announced. The journalists are not really interested in politics, per se. What really drives them is the thrill of the chase.

If that is the case, then the media corps must currently be in its seventh heaven – we are seeing a torrent of speculation about the Oaf's intentions in this respect, so much so that the general feeling seems to be not so much whether, but when. There is, of course, the proviso that it's unlikely to happen before we have left the European Union.

Bearing in mind that the current projected date for Brexit, on 31 October, is a Thursday, I would not rule out the possibility of Johnson actually calling an election for that date.

The very process of calling an election means that parliament is dissolved, so there would be no opposition to a default no-deal exit and, by the time a new government was in place, it would be too late to do anything about it – we'd be out.

In this event, timing would be everything, but Johnson holds a lot of cards. He could, for instance, survive the recess - with the House not due to return until 3 September – by thrashing around the capitals of Europe, pretending to push for new negotiations. As long as the charade retains some element of credibility, it could ward off opponents, and prevent them taking formal action to stop a no-deal exit.

With the conference recess then starting on 13 September and running to 9 October, that leaves parliament only eight working days between now and then, which is hardly enough time for the likes of Hammond to mount a counter-coup, blocking any attempt by Johnson to run down the clock to the 31st.

Fully to see off the opposition, though, one assumes that Johnson will attempt, possibly during the brief return, to engineer a motion for a general election. For that he would need the support of at least two-thirds of the House. Failing that, a vote of no confidence could automatically trigger a general election if no alternative government could be confirmed by the Commons within 14 days.

Either way, this procedure would open the way for Johnson to recommend a suitable polling day to the Crown, whence a proclamation for a new parliament could then be issued. Parliament would then be dissolved at the beginning of the 25th working day before polling day.

This might play havoc with the conference season, but we could find the conferences being used as the launch platforms for the respective parties, with the advantage for Johnson that it would suppress any criticism from his growing band of opponents within the Tories.

With the government's working assumption that a no-deal Brexit is a "very real prospect", the election card would seem to be the best mechanism for by-passing opposition.

A snap poll could be triggered by a staged crisis early in September, when Johnson was finally forced to concede that his "no backstop" stance ruled out any meaningful negotiations with the EU.

As to the electoral arithmetic, the Tories are already enjoying what is being called a "Boris bounce", which gives them a ten-point lead over Labour, according to YouGov, although other pollsters are not so generous with their margins. ComRes, in fact, only put the Tories one point ahead of Labour, the two parties attracting 28 and 27 percent of respondents.

Assessing the possibilities of a win, Robert Ford concedes that an early vote would be a risk, but it could also be a winner. The preconditions for success are that the Farage party vote slides into the Johnson camp, while the so-called "progressive" vote fails to unite.

Certainly, an uncompromising no-deal stance is expected to demolish Farage's vote, with anything from 13 to 18 percent of the vote up for grabs. If Johnson takes a significant slice of that vote (which he does in the YouGov poll, squeezing it down to 13 percent), he takes the lead, while a Lib-Dem resurgence erodes Labour's vote.

However, with the vote split four ways, it is less easy to predict seat distribution based merely on percentage shares of the vote. Ford remarks that an uncompromising hard Brexit strategy puts quite a lot of Conservative seats at risk.

No-deal, and Johnson himself, is unpopular in Scotland, so many of the Scottish Conservative MPs elected in 2017 would be at risk. The Lib-Dems could then pick up a number of Remain-leaning Conservative seats in southern England.

Every seat lost on these strongly Remain flanks, says Ford, would increase the number of gains the strong Brexit strategy will need to deliver. This in turn, he says, is a problem, because there are far fewer traditional marginal seats than there used to be. Johnson might need victories in seats where the Tories start well behind.

Furthermore, there is no real certainty as to how the public will react to Johnson's strategy when faced with the hard reality of a choice in the general election. The theory that Farage's vote will melt away is one that sustains the Johnson camp, but trust in Johnson is low and some voters might stick to the devil they know.

Geography could exacerbate this problem. Ford points out that if Farage voters in safe Tory seats find Johnson more attractive than Farage voters in Labour-held marginals, Johnson might end up with extra votes that don't translate into extra seats.

Adding to that, as party loyalties erode, some of the electorate might be more inclined to vote tactically, especially as the vote is splitting on pro- and anti-Brexit lines. Thus we might see "remain" voters backing any party, at a constituency level, which might have a chance of thwarting Johnson. That could buy Labour victories in key Labour-Tory marginals, and Lib-Dem successes in Tory-Lib-Dem marginals.

Voter volatility could end up with the "leave" vote split, while "remain" voters coalesce in tactical coalitions, taking out a disproportionate number of Tory seats.

The key to Johnson's success, in my view, might be for him to commit to a no-deal exit but to go to the electorate before the consequences of this option become apparent. For him, therefore, an election on or around 31 October would be very attractive, and to have the poll actually on Brexit day would have huge symbolic value.

Much will then depend on how successfully the government can convince the electorate that no-deal is a tenable option. And here we learn that Sajid Javid is to announce "an urgent spending blitz" aimed at no-deal preparations for 31 October.

The additional spending, Javid says, will include financing one of the country's "biggest ever public information campaigns", supposedly to ensure that individuals and businesses are ready for a no-deal exit. In fact, much of this will be political propaganda to disguise the fact that the government is supporting an unsustainable and potentially highly damaging exit strategy.

It is eminently possible, though, that throwing money at a no-deal option might bolster confidence in an otherwise unpopular stance, especially as the media has been more than inept in pointing out the most likely consequences of a no-deal Brexit. With the "project fear" rhetoric continuing to have a powerful effect, government money could tilt public sentiment, sufficient to make a difference.

For those likely to be influenced by it, US president Trump's intervention in support of Johnson – talking up the prospects of a US-UK trade deal – might also have an effect, although his support is a two-edged sword. The idea of a US-UK deal fills many with trepidation. And then there is the need for Congressional ratification, which means that Trump's pledges may be just so much hot air.

All of this makes an early general election almost impossible to call and, where opinion polls cease to be a reliable guide as to seat gains, any poll is bound to be a gamble.

Yet, under the right circumstances, an election will be a popular choice. If the prime minister is unsuccessful in negotiating changes to the EU withdrawal agreement (which is a racing certainty) and parliament forces the government to seek a further extension, 57 percent of the electorate believe a fresh general election should be called.

This goes to favour Johnson, where voters often punish politicians who call unnecessary elections. With the deft spin and the right timing, an election – despite all the uncertainties - could still be a successful ploy.

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