Wednesday 16 October 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'UK is left facing its most vicious and angry election - and one that will totally rewrite the political map'

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

There was a time when students of the fantastical could look forward to the annual Conservative conference.

In fact, all of the UK party conferences tend to provide an almost guilty pleasure.

With the Lib Dems, the highlights usually involve someone never heard of before and never seen afterwards, who makes wild promises about nice things and demands a free puppy for every house.

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In Labour's case, as we have recently seen, it can involve such odd suggestions as moving a homeless family into No 11 Downing Street.

That last Labour suggestion, which came from deputy leader John McDonnell, might well be taken up by a defenestrated Boris Johnson if his opponents' plans come to fruition. At least he wouldn't have to walk very far with his belongings in a black bin liner.

As the Tory conference enters its third day in Manchester, this is a gathering with a difference.

Following the opposition MPs veto of a 'conference recess', the conference is taking place while Parliament is sitting, which has caused alarm for the Tories and potentially provided another opportunity for the leaders of the opposition parties, who met yesterday, to pull a political stroke.

This year's conference is notable for the number of helicopters on standby, as senior party figures prepare for an emergency dash from the north of England back to Westminster in case of a surprise vote. Even that, however, may be nothing more than window dressing if one senior Tory minister is to be believed.

Speaking to 'The Spectator' yesterday, the unnamed cabinet member admitted that: "Frankly, it doesn't matter if we are in London or Manchester. We can't win votes even if we are all in Westminster."

The theme for this year's very unconventional party convention is 'Get Brexit Done' and that is one of the few remaining areas where the Tories have managed to tune in to the public mood; a mood that is becoming, on all sides, increasingly mutinous and frustrated with the three-year political paralysis.

That Johnson should be attending his first conference as leader while also trying to dismiss the latest rounds of allegations about his always interesting personal life is almost a piece of light relief in the face of the struggles he faces in the next few days - not to mention the potential calamities which lie in wait in the coming weeks.

As the parties diverge ever further from any common ground, it would appear that their respective grassroots membership have their finger pressed closer to the pulse of the UK than their party leadership.

Internal Tory polling, for instance, discovered last week that a majority want the matter sorted, 'not because of any specific benefits they expect as a result, but because if it's done they can talk about other things'.

Good luck with that.

Regardless of what new and terrible decisions are made about Brexit between now and October 19, the spectre of Brexit will still be casting its gloomy shadow a decade from now - no matter how utterly unlovely that prospect may appear to the rest of us.

While all eyes are understandably on events in Manchester, the real business is being conducted behind closed doors in Westminster as Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens conspire to force Johnson to seek an extension to Brexit as early as this Saturday.

Even that may be an exercise in wishful thinking that the leaders of the European Council will be happy to accede to yet another delaying-of-the-inevitable.

After all, European politicians are split on the issue of further extensions, and patience with British dithering has become notable for its absence in the last few months.

In fact, the endless back and forth seems to have irked people like Macron nearly as much as the result of the referendum itself.

Simon Coveney reiterated yesterday that: "We would like to get a deal in October... But I think the Irish view is that, so long as there is good reason for the request to extend, we would certainly support that over triggering a no deal."

In fact, the only party leaders who still seem to labour under the quixotic illusion that the UK can conjure a new deal, rather than the apparently inevitable no deal, remain Arlene Foster and Boris Johnson, two operators whose political credit remains deep in the red.

But assuming the opposition can force Johnson to do a complete 180 on his previous rhetoric about preferring to 'die in a ditch' rather than beg Brussels for an extension, then it looks like our friends in the UK will be staring down the barrel of an imminent election, with the smart money indicating a November day trip to the polls.

If that's the case, then we're looking at the most vicious and flagrantly hyperbolic election of our lifetime. Frankly, it will make Trump v Clinton look like a peace summit.

It's true, of course, that Arlene Foster has rather softened her cough, but her gritted- teeth concession of some sort of 'time-limited backstop' is far too little and way too late to have made any substantive difference.

Unscheduled elections, rather like unwanted referendums, can throw up unwelcome results. But there can be little doubt that democracy itself, or at the very least, the pillars and procedures of democracy, are under attack - from both sides, it should be noted.

At this stage, the people of the UK deserve to have their voice heard in the only opinion poll that counts - the ballot box.

The election itself will rewrite the political map.

One leading UK polling firm admitted over the weekend that the 'voters are promiscuous' on the issue. In other words, the traditional party lines won't count as much in what will be known as the Brexit Election.

This can be seen in former Labour safe seats. Hartlepool, for instance, voted overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit (69pc), and will be targeted by both the Tories and, indeed, the Brexit Party, which is eager to hoover up disaffected Labour voters. Some estimates even predict Labour losing up to 100 seats.

There will be blood on the carpet. The language used by both sides, and the dragooning of the late Jo Cox's name (again, by both sides) has been just a taster of what we can expect in the coming weeks.

Quick prediction? Johnson gone. Corbyn gone. Jo Swinson in a powerful position. Another referendum.

But if a second referendum throws up another close vote? Do they play next goal the winner? Best of three? Toss a coin?

Another tight result and we're back exactly where we were three years ago - a little older but certainly no wiser.

Irish Independent

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