Richard North, 18/12/2019  

Now, after the election campaign, Johnson puts the EU trade negotiations on the table and, at last, the legacy media decide to look at the consequences of not extending the transition period. It's a real pity, though, that they didn't think to raise the issue before we went to the polls.

However, while a discussion on this might have enlivened the pre-election debate, according to Lord Ashcroft, it wouldn't have made much difference. For that we have to look at Ashcroft's latest bulletin, headed, "Was it really 'Brexit wot lost it' for Labour?" In this, he effectively argues that it wouldn't have made any difference at all.

While we wait for the media to catch up with the consequences of what promise to be truncated negotiations, we can entertain ourselves with Ashcroft's views, which seem to have some merit.

John McDonnell, the noble Lord tells us, had been first with the theory, as soon as the exit poll had stunned the nation. "Brexit dominated the election", he had said. "I think people are frustrated and want Brexit out of the way".

This theme has been enthusiastically pursued in some quarters of the Labour Party, culminating in the claim that Labour "won the argument". That, of course, maintains its popularity as it exonerates Corbyn. His dire leadership had nothing to do with the party's worst result since 1935. Brexit alone can take the blame.

In full irony mode, Ashcroft suggests that, if this is the result you get when you win the argument, we can only imagine what losing it would look like. But what about the idea, he asks, that the result can be put entirely down to Brexit, rather than the broader questions of policy and leadership that usually go into people's voting decisions?

Says Ashcroft, it would be absurd to deny that Brexit played a big part in the result. His election-day post-vote poll of 13,000 voters found the idea that a Conservative vote was most likely to lead to "the Brexit outcome I wanted" topped the list of broad explanations for Tory voters' decisions.

Significantly, though, only 37 percent mentioned it as the single most important reason. A third did not mention it in their top three. The view that the Conservatives "would do a better job of running the economy" was close behind, as was their view that Boris Johnson would make a better prime minister.

But here, there is something we have already noted, that Corbyn and Brexit, in electoral terms, are two sides of the same coin. Says Ashcroft, even though Brexit policy was a clear dividing line between the parties, this cannot be disentangled from Jeremy Corbyn's leadership on the issue, or lack of it.

Time and again, people told Ashcroft's focus groups that they suspected Corbyn really wanted to leave the EU but wouldn’t say so. They understood that he was caught between his mostly Remain MPs and activists and his many "leave" voters, but that didn't make him seem any stronger or more decisive.

When telling Ashcroft's people what they understood Labour's policy to be – usually in terms like "they will negotiate a new deal and then have another referendum and campaign against it", if they knew it at all – they would often do so with a smirk which betrayed what they thought of it.

It seems that Corbyn's ultimate declaration that as prime minister he would be "neutral" on the biggest political question facing the country simply invited derision.

It is true that only 64 percent of 2017 Labour "leave" voters stayed with the party last week (just as 66 percent of 2017 Conservative "remainers" stayed loyal to the Tories). Brexit was important to these people and many were torn over whether they could bring themselves to vote Conservative.

But Corbyn made their decision to do so easier, not harder. Regularly Ashcroft's people heard that he was an "ultra-left-wing backward-looking 1970s throwback with terrorist sympathies and no fondness for Britain", a man who had at the very least failed to deal with antisemitism in his own party and simply did not have the qualities to be prime minister.

Many former supporters declared that they could not vote Labour in its current form, Brexit or no Brexit. In Ashcroft's post-vote poll, only 14 percent of Conservative voters said they would have voted differently had Brexit not been on the agenda. Only a quarter of them said they would otherwise have voted Labour.

Even though Brexit helped some Labour "leavers" away from the party, this does not explain the defections among its 2017 supporters who voted "remain". Sixteen per cent of 2017 Labour "remainers" declined to vote for the party last week – twice the proportion of Conservative "leavers" who failed to vote Tory. And this was despite the adoption of a policy on the supposedly overriding issue of the election which was designed to keep them on board.

Says Ashcroft, perhaps the starkest evidence of all on this question came midway through the campaign, when he asked voters what, if anything, they feared about a new Conservative or Labour government. In third place for Labour, "their plans might damage business and the economy". Second, "they would spend too much and get Britain into more debt". But top of the list was "Jeremy Corbyn being Prime Minister".

It is understandable, Ashcroft concludes, that many in the Labour Party want to hold fast to the idea that Brexit alone cost them the election. After a traumatic setback, it is only human to grasp at the most comforting explanations that come to hand.

It is also, he says, a regular habit of losing political parties, as we saw with Labour in 2010 and, let us not forget, with the Conservatives after 1997, who took years, not days, to grasp the reasons for their predicament. But the longer Labour clings to its consolation theory, the more distant will be the first step on the road to recovery.

As such, we see further credence given to the view that it was not so much the Tories who won the election but Corbyn and his followers who lost it.

It is worth revisiting this, as the triumphal Johnson gears up his troops to "get Brexit done". He believes he has a mandate for what he's doing, but that is a shaky assumption. Had he been up against a competent and halfway credible opponent, history could have been very different.

The issue of concern, though, is even that doesn't make any difference. Johnson has taken this election result as giving him a free hand to take any action he likes. And, with the Labour Party still in disarray, there is little chance of it mounting an effective opposition.

Whatever views one might have of the new administration, this is not a healthy situation. Good governance based on our parliamentary system not only requires competence from the governing party, but a functional opposition as well.

As long as Corbyn is in place, there is no chance of our system performing. And, given the possible replacements, it seems unlikely that things are set to improve. We are, it seems, headed for a dark place.

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