Monday 23 September 2019

John Downing: 'Brexit goes from the absurd to the bizarre - and now an election adds to uncertainty'

Q&A

Switch: Former Labour MP Luciana Berger (left) with Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, whose party she has now joined. Photo: PA
Switch: Former Labour MP Luciana Berger (left) with Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, whose party she has now joined. Photo: PA
John Downing

John Downing

Explain this row about election timing?

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in a bind. A law obliging him to do what he swears he will never do - seek a Brexit extension beyond the October 31 deadline - will clear both houses of the London parliament.

To avoid breaking the law, he wants an election on October 15, throwing the Brexit issue back to the people.

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He has been refused the necessary two-thirds majority of MPs to permit this election under the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and others insist they will only agree to the necessary election backing when a no-deal Brexit is completely ruled out.

There is division within Labour about election timing, but the opposition is likely to back an election some time after October 31, ruling out Mr Johnson getting a no-deal Brexit by default. Mr Johnson will try again for parliamentary election permission next Monday. He needs 434 of the 650 MPs. On Wednesday night, he only had 298.

Can Mr Johnson win a general election?

Doubts: There are questions over Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s electability. Photo: PA
Doubts: There are questions over Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s electability. Photo: PA

He is gambling wildly that he can win and get a firm grip on power. Right now he lacks a majority and is a prisoner of parliament, his own Conservative rebels and opposition parties. Due to poor leadership by Labour's Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservatives lead in opinion polls and Mr Johnson still has a new sheen about him.

Mr Johnson is aiming at voters weary of Brexit who want it delivered. He is trading on voters' views that Corbyn is not prime minister material, and busy pumping money into the economy, pledging improved policing, health and other services.

But his problem is that he has further divided his Conservative Party, expelling 21 MPs including some household names. He has lost four separate parliament votes and has a deal of the gloss taken off him since his election on July 24.

Mr Johnson hopes he can offset losses in Scotland, London and south-east England with wins in traditional Labour heartlands in the midlands and north of England, where more people back Brexit. It is a huge gamble.

What is the current state of the UK parties?

The Conservatives were shown on 34pc this week. That is nine points ahead of Labour on 25pc. The resurgent Liberal Democrats are on 18pc and Nigel Farage's Brexit Party on 13pc. But let's be cautious here. UK opinion polls have been shown to be very unreliable in recent years and the Brexit situation changes dramatically from hour to hour.

What happens if Mr Johnson gets back in power with better parliamentary numbers?

Very bad news for Ireland. He could, for example, just squat in Downing Street and do nothing much, allowing a no-deal Brexit to happen in due course.

He could undo the law obliging him to seek an extension. A worse option would be him making an alliance with Nigel Farage's Brexit Party, helping him make up the parliamentary numbers. The price there would be Brexit on any terms.

What are the realistic chances of Labour winning and what would it mean for Ireland?

It would be good for Ireland, resulting in a very soft Brexit, minimising disruption. It might even mean another referendum and Brexit reversal.

Labour have grounds for arguing that, in the heat of an election battle and with good media exposure, they can upend survey predictions.

They can point to Theresa May's rush to the polls in June 2017 on the back of polls showing her Conservatives were up to 20pc ahead in the polls. Mrs May lost that one.

Labour effectively defied the opinion polls last time in June 2017. But they are very divided on the issue of Brexit and many of their voters in traditional English midland and north heartlands want to quit the EU. People in these areas have not voted anything other than Labour in a century, but they may be attracted to Farage's Brexit Party.

On the other side, their lack of definition on Brexit leaves Labour vulnerable to the avowedly pro-EU Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems are enjoying a rebirth after their post-coalition drubbing in a general election in 2015.

What would be the role of other parties?

After the last election, 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs were left calling the shots. UK politics is fragmented and any group could hold sway.

Irish Independent

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