Top 3 developments
- UK political parties have officially launched their election campaigns this week.
- Remain MPs have launched an alliance which will see one remain MP standing in 60 seats to secure more remain seats in Parliament after the election.
- The Labour Party has suffered a blow with notable MPs, such as Tom Watson and Ian Austin, announcing that they will not be standing in the next election.
General Election Update
Living Levido Loca
Boris Johnson launched the Conservative Party election campaign in Birmingham on Wednesday, offering a positive message to turn on the public spending taps to give more money to the NHS, for schools and to fight crime. His central message is of course, to ‘Get Brexit Done’. Expect to see and hear this slogan everywhere, as this is the central message of the campaign and message discipline is often what wins elections (see ‘Yes We Can’, ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ as recent examples).
The campaign is being run by a political strategist called Isaac Levido, a former protégé of Sir Lynton Crosby and a surprising choice given that Dominic Cummings is still technically in the loop. Levido is pursuing an intriguing campaign, perhaps best exemplified by the social media strategy. So far it has used deliberately poor graphics and images (such as ‘Get Brexit Done’ in the widely mocked Comic Sans font) which are designed to incentivise opponents to share them ironically, and therefore spreading the message as far and wide as possible. This technique was used successfully in the recent Australian General Election, so it is a tried and tested system that has previously worked. As elections become more and more dominated by the social media battleground, this is a hugely important part of the Conservative campaign.
However, despite Johnson’s positive message at his campaign launch, the Conservatives have faced an extremely rocky start to their campaign. The list of setbacks is seemingly endless. Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees Mogg claimed that the victims of the Grenfell disaster lacked common sense, CCHQ were found to be sharing a highly misrepresentative video of Keir Starmer struggling to explain Labour’s Brexit policy, a Conservative candidate was revealed to have made some extremely derogatory comments about a rape case and the Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill blocked the publication of the costings of Labour’s campaign pledges because it had been done by Treasury civil servants. However, somehow, none of these were the most damaging thing that happened to the Tories over the past 72 hours.
On Wednesday the Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns was forced to resign after it emerged that he had lied about knowing that a former staffer had deliberately collapsed a rape case with inadmissible evidence. This was the first time that a Cabinet Minister had ever resigned during a General Election campaign, and it was hardly the ideal way to promote a compassionate Conservative Government. Although these are damaging setbacks, General Elections are long, and it is unlikely that any of these developments will derail the campaign because they have happened so early on. Boris Johnson will surely be hoping that no more setbacks like these spring up during the rest of the campaign, but he will know better than anyone that this is likely to be wishful thinking.
The Labour Party launched their campaign for the 12th December General Election this week and, unsurprisingly, it is a campaign that is avoiding the topic of Brexit altogether. At a time when Brexit is dominating the nation’s focus, and the Conservative Party’s, this may hinder Labour come 12th December if the public feel abandoned by the lack of clear decision making from the party. However, the commitment of a second referendum may be enough to prevent voters switching to other Remain parties, such as the Liberal Democrats.
In attempts to shift the focus, Corbyn’s campaign centres the election as a class battle between “born-to-rule Conservatives” and the ordinary voter, with Corbyn promising to hit out at “tax dodgers, dodgy landlords, bad bosses and big polluters”. This isn’t a neutral campaign that many Labour MPs would like to see and has cost Corbyn a few notable MPs in the next election, including Deputy Leader Tom Watson and former Labour MP Ian Austin. Whilst Watson claims that his resignation was “personal, not political”, Austin has made clear that his reason for standing down was because he believes that Corbyn is “completely unfit” to be Prime Minister. Such a comment may go on to hurt Labour in the polls, and cause members of the public to question Corbyn’s ability to hold the position of Prime Minister.
The campaign, much like the one in 2017, is an attempt to enthuse voters and the younger generation, in attempt to show that voting can lead to a real change in politics. Whilst MPs may be wary that such a strong position would alienate some traditional, more liberal voters, it currently does not seem to be affecting Labour negatively in the polls, so far. Whilst Labour has not publicised its stance on Brexit, it is clear that the Party do not want a hard Brexit, as is being proposed by the Conservatives and the Brexit Party. This could be Corbyn’s saving grace in the election and cause votes to shift to Labour for the promise of a better deal and second referendum.
Money Grows on Trees, Doesn’t It?
The shift of public focus from the economy to Brexit appears to have given way to both the Conservatives and Labour making several pledges for significantly increased spending. Such promises, according to the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, will take public spending back to pre-1970s levels.
Labour have announced an extra £55 billion a year on schools, hospitals and infrastructure which would be funded by borrowing. Additionally, their pledges of a four-day work week, increasing maternity leave to a year and giving works the right to choose their hours will reportedly cost the taxpayer over £17 billion. As the national deficit consisted of £41 billion in March, Labour are now talking about almost doubling this, resulting in a faster rate of increase to the national debt. However, from McDonnell’s point of view, the Government’s debt would not be as significant if the value of the physical assets that it owned (schools, hospitals and infrastructure, for example) rose. This is a radical change to public finances which has not be seen under previous Conservative Governments and an approach could easily appeal to votes who want to see changes to the running of the public sector.
Such spending pledges are not unsurprising from Labour, what is surprising is that the Conservatives appear to be pursuing a similar route, leaving limited room for the ‘far-reaching tax cuts’ that have been promised by Boris Johnson. Yesterday, Sajid Javid promised £22 billion a year in public investment as part of a “decade of renewal for the nation”. Unlike Labour’s policies, this would be structured over three years, with the Government not spending more than it could raise in taxes, in attempt to avoid the national debt increasing. This promise appears to be contradictory to that of the Prime Minister as it will be difficult to introduce significant tax cuts, whilst also increasing Government spending which is reliant on taxpayer money. These pledges may be an attempt to appeal to voters that the Party may have alienated through pursuing a hard-Brexit.
What about me!?
The Liberal Democrats have spoken out this week against ITV’s decision to exclude Jo Swinson from their head-to-head election debate due to take place on 19th November. Despite winning only 7.4 per cent of the popular vote in the 2017 General Election, the Lib Dems are pushing to win remain voters across the UK by arguing that they are the only party offering a genuine option to ‘Stop Brexit’. Naturally, this position has led to accusations that the Lib Dems are attempting to ‘rub out’ the will of the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit. One of the greatest challenges for the Lib Dems will be breaking the reoccurring curse that prevents their vote share from translating into seats in Parliament. This dilemma became most evident in 2010 when the Lib Dems won 23 per cent of the national vote but won only 57 seats compared to Labour whose 29 per cent vote share won them 258 seats.
Whilst the Lib Dem’s main campaign strategy of ‘Stop Brexit’ is clear, they too are promising an increase in government spending on public services, such as mental health services, funded partly by a £50bn ‘remain bonus’. This is a figure they claim will be a consequence of a 1.9 per cent higher GDP if the UK were to remain inside the EU. Whether this figure is accurate or not is subject to debate, however, memories of the £350m Leave Bus are already rushing back.
Unite to Remain
The concern from Remain MPs standing in the General Election is that the Remain vote will be split amongst the various parties, handing an election victory to the Conservatives by default. In an attempt to combat this dilemma, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens have finalised a plan to have only one Remain MP each standing in 60 seats across England and Wales. The agreement, which notably does not include Labour, covers 49 seats in England and 11 in Wales, though it has not yet been announced which seats these will be.
Such an alliance demonstrates the volatile and divisive time for UK politics, for several parties putting the issue of Brexit, and the need to block Brexiteer parties like the Conservatives, above gaining traction in Parliament. This will no doubt benefit the Liberal Democrats above anyone else, as it will be likely that Liberal Democrats MPs will be the one selected to run unopposed by other Remain Parties. This is because the Liberal Democrats already have 20 seats in Parliament, compared to four for Plaid Cymru and one for the Greens.
The alliance, known as ‘Unite to Remain’, took inspiration from the success of the Brecon and Radnorshire byelection, which saw Plaid Cymru and the Greens standing aside to allow the Liberal Democrats to overturn a Conservative majority of 8,000. Peter Dunphy, the director of Unite to Remain, stated that this was a successful test-case to allow for such a tactical manoeuvre in the General Election and that the group’s main aim was to reduce the number of Brexit-backing MPs in Parliament.
The dilemma now, however, is that party alliances have previously proved to be problematic due to perceived unwillingness of parties, especially Labour, to give ground. Reports already suggest that the Green Party are sceptical of the plan. Whilst an election that is dominated by Brexit has allowed parties to work more coherently together, the failure of Labour to participate in such an alliance will still split the vote as Unite to Remain MPs may still be standing against a remain Labour MP. This will provide an issue for voters as they may be unsure who to vote for and give the Conservatives the seat by default.
Make your transition
Michael Gove said on Tuesday that the UK would not extend the transition period beyond December 2020. The transition period is the time set out in the Withdrawal Agreement to allow the UK and EU to negotiate a free trade agreement. In political terms, the UK would have left the EU during this period, but would still remain in the Single Market and Customs Union. The December 2020 date was set during Theresa May’s tenure as Prime Minister, which envisaged the UK leaving on the 29th March 2019. This gave the UK and EU nearly 2 years to negotiate a trade deal. But under Boris Johnson’s deal, this date has not been extended, even if the UK is not set to leave the EU until the 31st January 2020 (a BIG if).
To most Eurosceptics, being out of the EU but in the Single Market and Customs Union doesn’t really count as leaving, so the idea of extending the transition period is toxic. But if the UK and EU do not have a trade deal ready by then, the default option is leaving without formal trading relationships in place, something MPs will not allow. Some expect the trade talks will be even more difficult and complex than the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations. The EU are seasoned and ruthless negotiators – as we have seen – and these trade talks will determine our future economic relationship with the bloc. Therefore, these talks will no doubt be as politically charged as the entire Brexit process has been. Every faction wants something different, whether it’s full alignment, a ‘Super-Canada’ deal or a bare-bones trade agreement.
To give an idea of how difficult this could be, the Canada-EU (CETA) trade deal took 7 years to negotiate. Even though the UK and EU are starting from full alignment and are agreeing on the extent to which to diverge, these trade talks will be facing the full glare of politicians, the media and the public, which as we have seen makes negotiating extremely difficult. Every indication therefore suggests that it will be nigh on impossible to negotiate a trade deal and get it through Parliament before December 2020, and that there is another Brexit battle looming between Brexiteers and Remainers, should the Withdrawal Agreement ever be ratified. Unfortunately, 2020 will not bring an end to the UK arguing about extensions…
Theresa May-D Mistakes
The Journal of European Public Policy recently published a report which concluded that divisions within the Conservative Party gave Brussels the edge in trade talks. The team of researchers, which included academics from King’s College and the University of Exeter, as well as a number of other European institutions, argue that Tory infighting led to the UK losing ground on the production of key negotiating texts and guidelines, which allowed the EU to box in British negotiators and dictate the process of the talks. The report also suggests that May prioritised the survival and management of the party over long-term strategic policy thinking about Brexit. If you look at two of the (arguably) most decisive points in her Premiership regarding Brexit, it is easy to find that this is absolutely the case.
One of the most momentous, yet largely forgotten about moments in the Brexit saga was the Lancaster House speech which Theresa May gave in January 2017. This was essentially the first flagship speech that the then PM made about Brexit, and the speech was written by Nick Timothy, her co-Chief of Staff and committed Brexiteer. This speech set out Theresa May’s intentions to leave the Single Market and Customs Union, a move widely touted to appease the Brexiteers in the Party. These red lines were drawn before the UK Government fully realised how difficult it would be to leave these institutions while maintaining an open border in Ireland, as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement.
This speech led directly to her calling of the General Election in 2017, as she sought the election precisely to gain a larger Conservative majority in order to push this hard Brexit through Parliament. She obviously was not successful in this, and ended up with a reduced majority. The eventual Brexit deal did reflect this and was a compromise text that envisaged a much closer relationship to the EU than she promised in the Lancaster House speech. Brexiteers cried betrayal, and her inability to secure the Eurosceptic wing of her Party – the very wing her original Brexit policy was designed to appease – ultimately led to her downfall.
Upcoming Key Dates
- 12th December: UK Election.
- 31st January 2020: New Brexit Deadline.
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