Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Why an election looks inevitable despite Boris' rallying cry to his troops

If we do go to the polls this October, the DUP should emerge largely unscathed and could even add a seat, writes Jon Tonge

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking outside his official residence in London’s Downing Street last night
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking outside his official residence in London’s Downing Street last night
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

It might have been easier to have taken the Crown off the lectern and leave it outside 10 Downing Street, ready for Boris Johnson's election declaration tomorrow night. For all the Prime Minister's protestations that no-one wants an election - we are with him on that at least - the focus has already moved onto when, not if.

For the government is right to fear defeat on a vote blocking a no-deal Brexit, facilitated by a Speaker, John Bercow, happy to allow such Opposition devices. The government can fume but not overcome.

Michael Gove showed the need to introduce a GCSE in Politics - for Cabinet ministers - with his neo-anarchist bluster on the BBC's Andrew Marr programme at the weekend. Gove suggested the government might choose to ignore parliament. That's not what happens in democracies Michael. With government and parliament in deadlock, an election becomes inevitable - so it's back to the lectern.

The Prime Minister's threat to deselect Conservative MPs blocking a no-deal Brexit was brutal and unprecedented. It was also a sign of weakness, not strength. The parliamentary arithmetic is not in Johnson's favour, even if we see a government whipping operation so brutal it might breach a human rights act. Conservative plus DUP forces number 321. Opponents, excluding abstentionist Sinn Fein, total 320. Even allowing for prominent Labour Brexiteers like Kate Hoey supporting no-deal, the likely scale of Conservative rebellion against such a Brexit makes government defeat a probability.

Deselection is a drastic threat, for sure. It is a career-ending deterrent for a young Conservative MP with a family to support. Entering an election on an "Independent Conservative" label is saying hello to defeat and political oblivion.

But it also risks a two-defeats-for-the-price-of-one scenario for the Conservative Party, splitting its vote between official and rebel candidates to the benefit of rivals. Where popular local candidates are deselected, local Conservative associations - which jealously guard their autonomy in candidate selection - may split. How that helps a Conservative election campaign one can only wonder.

Any idea that figures such as Ken Clarke could be cowed by the Conservative Chief Whip - a Mark Spencer with nothing to sell - is laughable. Whilst Clarke is the Europhile's Europhile, there are at least a dozen other Conservative MPs -figures such as Dominic Grieve or Antoinette Sandbach - so opposed to a no-deal Brexit that they are not malleable. Incendiary tactics like deselection are irrelevant to irreconcilables.

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Some might operate as an Independent Conservative 'Leg Choppers' Party, to use Boris's description of them, against official Conservative candidates. For those renegades, the Conservative Party has become a distasteful adjunct of the Brexit Party and the European Research Group, organisations mired in absolutism.

In demanding loyalty from his MPs, Boris Johnson certainly does irony. It's less than a year since he turned up at another party's conference to ferment rebellion against his party leader. Whatever his genuine objections to the backstop - and there is at least a case to be heard for alternatives - few at the DUP's gathering that day regarded his speech as anything other than a personal bid to oust his party leader and replace her with, funnily enough, him. Johnson supported his leader's EU Withdrawal Agreement on only one occasion. Yet May never countenanced deselecting him nor those serial rebels within the European Research Group.

The Prime Minister has a point that those desiring a three-month Brexit extension have not stated what it can possibly achieve. What, pray, will change by January 31, 2020? Further delay (again) appears a device to thwart Brexit full stop. The only Brexit deal on offer from the outset has been the May-Barnier deal, complete with backstop. Given that the opposition parties united to defeat that deal on three occasions, by 230, 149 and finally 58 votes, they might want to reflect on their own roles in risking a no-deal Brexit.

Those opposition parties, having wasted years by agreeing nothing on how to proceed, complain that departure without a deal would be catastrophic.

Yet they facilitated the risk by continually voting down a deal, which, for all its flaws, offered a viable continuing trading relationship with the EU and dealt with the vexed issues of cross-border trade. Offering rhetoric of respecting the referendum result, the Opposition blocked the compromises that might have maintained economic stability and healthy political relationships between the UK and Ireland and with the EU.

Assuming the government loses the vote and a no-deal Brexit is blocked, an election will be called, provided two-thirds of MPs vote for one under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) - which will indeed be the case.

Oppositions have to be seen to be wanting an election. The FTPA is a chocolate fireguard piece of legislation in preventing snap elections.

By insisting we will be leaving the EU on October 31, the Prime Minister believes he has done enough to head off the threat of the Brexit Party. If Nigel Farage is unconvinced by Johnson's protestations, it could do serious damage, peeling off some Conservative support, whilst Labour, or the Liberal Democrats, or even rebel Conservatives, corner the Remain vote. In Scotland, the Conservatives face difficulties - expect increased SNP dominance - so a snap election is dangerous. That said, the Conservative campaign is likely to be infinitely superior to that of 2017 - how could it not be?

The last time an October election was held in Northern Ireland the UUP won half of the seats.

It was that long ago. Boris's allies - for now - in the DUP should emerge largely unscathed and could even gain a seat to add to their ten. 30% of DUP voters did not support Brexit at the referendum but they stayed with the party at the general election a year later. That said, Lucid Talk's recent figures show possible vulnerability in South and East Belfast.

So we are almost certainly heading to the polls on October 14, just prior to the European Council summit. Unusually we will be voting on a Monday. As if they aren't bad enough.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and Director of the last three ESRC Northern Ireland General Election studies.

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