Boris Johnson has always been a betting man, politically speaking. The safe choice wasn’t quitting Parliament to run for London mayor in 2008, or becoming the face of the Leave campaign in 2016, or deliberately antagonising MPs and the EU during his Brexit negotiations this summer, yet each time, the gamble eventually paid off.
In some respects, the imminent general election seems like another epic bet, staking his tenuous grip on power on the chance to regain control of Parliament, in what will surely be the most volatile and uncertain general election in living memory.
Yet that presupposes the PM has something to lose. Johnson’s lifelong goal wasn’t to be an impotent, disaster Prime Minister, shuttling between Downing Street and defeats in the Commons, raging against rebel MPs forcing his failure to deliver Brexit, until finally they conspired to get rid of him. He wants to enjoy power and to go down in history with some measure of glory, neither of which seems very likely in the existing Parliament.
The election may therefore be less of a gamble for Johnson than it appears, but for Britain it will be a roll of the dice, an inflection point in our history. For now, the PM is the favourite, enjoying a healthy lead in most polls, but a lot can change in six weeks of campaigning.
Whether a lumbering Johnson will follow in the footsteps of Richard III at Bosworth, or triumph like Henry V at Agincourt will depend on whether either of these two things happen.
1. Nigel Farage strikes back
Personality will be just as important as policy in this election, maybe more so. Corbyn and Johnson are more comfortable talking with electors one-on-one, happier on the campaign trail than at the dispatch box. But when notorious pub raconteur Nigel Farage is thrown into the mix, expect a fierce battle of words and wits played out in the streets by a revolutionary, a boozer and a wag.
Vanquishing Farage is essential if the Conservatives are to succeed, particularly in making gains in Labour’s northern heartlands. That will be determined by who can take control of the narrative.
Farage will relentlessly remind harder-nosed Brexiters that Johnson did a deal with the enemy and then missed his October 31 "do-or-die" deadline, in an attempt to convince them that the PM is just another elitist, that he’s not a true believer and that he can’t be trusted to deliver Brexit.
Johnson, meanwhile, having lurched towards a harder Brexit, will play up his hard-man credentials - that he’s the man who got concessions when people said it was impossible, and who was willing to walk away if that’s what it took - in an attempt to convince Leave voters that there’s no longer any point in Nigel Farage.
2. The election isn’t actually about Brexit after all
If you believe that traditional party politics has completely given way to shades of Leave vs Remain, then Johnson would appear to have a big advantage: even if Farage surges, the Remain vote is still split more than the Leave vote is. If, on the other hand, you believe that domestic politics and party tribalism are ultimately more important, then the playing field would appear to be more level.
It’s a crude analysis - in our first past the post system, there will be 650 separate battles, each simultaneously fought on a wide range of policies, personalities, local issues and national ones. Small swings in small places can lead to big results in a four-way, winner-takes-all contest.
Nonetheless, a Brexit election would undoubtedly benefit everyone but Labour, which is at risk in both Leave and Remain seats. The Liberals in particular will mercilessly punish Corbyn for his vacillation, exploiting their position as the clearest anti-Brexit party in the hope of perhaps tripling their Parliamentary headcount, while the SNP will aim to drive the Westminster Parties out of Scotland altogether.
Corbyn will pin his hopes on having the clearest vision for Britain beyond Brexit, a radical socialist programme to tackle inequality similar to the manifesto that carried Labour to surprising electoral gains in 2017. His advantage here is clear - Johnson has yet to come up with a compelling vision for Britain past getting Brexit done and splashing some strategic cash around, yet he still suffers from association with a decade of unpopular austerity politics.
Even if Corbyn can frame the electoral contest in domestic policy terms though, it’s far from clear this will be successful - Labour’s upswing in 2017 could have had more to do with Theresa May’s arrogant manifesto and textbook campaigning blunders, not least underestimating Corbyn the campaigner, than with the underlying popularity of Labour’s programme. But it does give him an outsider’s chance, even if it will require the mother of all grassroots campaigns for him to take it.
It will be clear after the fact whether this is indeed a Brexit election, an election about what Britain should look like in the future or a bit of both. My sense, for what it’s worth, is that when you are at war, the war takes precedence, and the people are war weary.
In any case, the campaigns will surely throw up surprises, and with battle lines shifting it’s still possible that one leader will break through the war of words and deliver a message that resonates with people.
If that’s not Johnson, then the most likely outcome is a hung Parliament and yet more gridlock. The last few months have shown what little appetite there is for consensus and compromise in British politics, which means that for the Prime Minister nothing short of outright victory will suffice.
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