Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Snap election gamble could work... but May's folly in 2017 shows it's also huge risk

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

As plans go, Boris Johnson's idea of an October 17 general election has far more credibility than the one to suspend Parliament to get Brexit over the line.

Losing a no-confidence vote in the Commons - voluntarily or involuntarily - is hardly the best way for a Government to enter an election.

But the Johnson camp is sufficiently convinced that Jeremy Corbyn is no Ben Stokes - achieving victory from a seemingly impossible position (according to the opinion polls anyway) - that it is worth the risk.

The potential advantages for the Prime Minister seem obvious.

It could be an election providing a dual mandate - for Boris Johnson and Boris Johnson's Brexit. It would be a brave democrat refusing to accept the verdict of the people from both the 2016 referendum and the 2019 election.

Johnson's electoral appeal would be to strengthen his (weak) hand in dealings with the EU in any final Brexit discussions.

The election pitch would also undoubtedly contain plenty of sabre-rattling about "no deal, no divorce cash" for Brussels.

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The Conservative Party conference, scheduled for September 29 to October 2, could become an election rally.

The above is predicated on Boris Johnson genuinely supporting Brexit, when there is considerable evidence that all Boris Johnson truly believes in is Boris Johnson being Prime Minister.

The suspicion remains that Johnson would be content with a dilution or even a cancellation of Brexit if the anti-EU sentiment of his party members and the electoral threat of the Brexit Party could somehow simultaneously be neutered.

But they cannot. Johnson cannot now abandon the populist base by which he did ascend.

There are also obvious risks to a snap election. Many Brexiteers voted for the first - and perhaps only - time in the 2016 referendum. They are not guaranteed to resurface in 2019. Labour could mobilise its base and beyond on a platform of a second referendum and abandoning the whole wretched Brexit idea as a bad dream from which we now need release.

The polls suggest that few believe that the Prime Minister holds magical powers to wrestle a better deal from the EU, so making that a key part of an election platform is fraught with danger.

Johnson could offer a clear outline of his alternative to the backstop. He might make the point that a common all-island trade arrangement on agricultural trade would hardly collapse the EU single market, could avoid border security and prevent the endangering of the peace process that some in the EU think is imminent. But would it work electorally or politically?

Boris Johnson will also be acutely aware of how Theresa May's advisers thought the 2017 election would be a stroll in the polling park.

It heralded the arrival centre-stage of the DUP. Winning an overall majority would alleviate the need to deal with Arlene Foster's party. Johnson could then shamelessly accept the EU's backstop deal.

Chameleons can only change colour a limited number of times - and have a limited lifespan.

Johnson might test those propositions.

But the DUP is not Johnson's main problem. The DUP is likely to see the re-election of the bulk of its MPs to Westminster.

Most DUP seats are safer than the Prime Minister's own in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. South Belfast is possibly vulnerable but North Down is winnable. There will remain a solid DUP bloc of 10 MPs.

If Johnson cannot deliver a solid majority, he would have little trouble renegotiating the Conservatives' supply-and-confidence deal if needs must, provided he remains solid in opposing the backstop. Why so?

Fast-forward to the DUP conference, scheduled for October 25 and 26.

The DUP might be wary of the current Prime Minister's fidelity to binning the backstop.

But imagine the mood at that conference if obliged to gather to discuss the commitment of a new Prime Minister - Jeremy Corbyn - to the Union itself.

Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and director of the three most recent ESRC Northern Ireland General Election studies.

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