The day the Remain dream died was not 12th December but 17th October

Once Johnson had his deal it was all over. Moderates should have agreed to an election sooner

December 16, 2019
This was not ievitable, says Lis. Phoot:  Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images
This was not ievitable, says Lis. Phoot: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

It is barely three days since the election and already the official history of Labour’s calamitous defeat has become established: Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership; the party’s Brexit policy; suspicion of its manifesto; its poor communication; the splitting of the Remain vote; and of course the weak response to anti-semitism. Soul searching is also justifiably focusing on the trend of the last 15 years, now rapidly accelerated, in which Labour has cemented its popularity in affluent urban seats and lost ground in former industrial areas and working-class towns. Perhaps strangely, however, given this was the Conservatives’ best result in over 30 years, comparatively little analysis has concentrated on why the Tories actually won. Commentators have simply accepted what seems obvious: Boris Johnson was staggeringly unpopular but still preferred over Corbyn, he ran a ruthless campaign which won unwavering media support, and he pledged to end our nation’s misery by “getting Brexit done.”

While all this is true, it nonetheless misses the key ingredient in the “cakeism”: Johnson’s deal. Without it, there could have been no successful entreaty to “get Brexit done,” and the entire campaign would have focused on the disaster Brexit was about to become. Without a deal, Johnson had no deal. We have no way of knowing for sure how such an election would have panned out, except to say that Johnson could never have prevailed in the way he did last Thursday.

Put simply, Johnson won his majority not on 12th December but 17th October.

Let us cast our minds back to what life was like two and a half months ago. The only story then was how we were going to leave on 31st October, deal or no deal. Each day Downing Street was briefing a new preposterous story about how it would defy the Benn Act, which mandated a request to extend Article 50 in order to prevent no deal. Johnson was threatening the country with economic, social and political oblivion and his party lapped it up.

Then, on 10th October, Johnson met Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at a Merseyside hotel and agreed to erect a customs wall between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. One week later, the deal was signed. The EU’s key red lines would be preserved: no customs or regulatory infrastructure on the island of Ireland, and no need for any such infrastructure in the future. The moment Johnson conceded the issue, he opened up new possibilities for negotiation. The EU agreed to abolish the backstop and replaced it with a “frontstop”: Northern Ireland’s divergence from the rest of the UK would not be presumed temporary but permanent. More importantly for the prime minister, Great Britain would be leaving the customs union, and that imperial-revivalist global “buccaneering” could begin.

Remainers were floored. Most had assumed that Johnson would and could not throw the Democratic Unionists under the bus, and that if he did, hardline Brexiters and Conservative unionists would not support him. Both assumptions were false. Johnson had secured his deal, gathered the entire party behind him, and had already purged any Conservative who wasn’t.

Remainers had made a further fundamental miscalculation. Many of us supposed that if there were no deal, Nigel Farage would fall in behind Johnson and the Leave vote would unite—but if there were a deal, especially one which cleaved Northern Ireland from Great Britain, Farage and other hardliners would attack the deal ruthlessly and eat up Tory support. Instead, Johnson played both flanks. In the run-up to the election he convinced Remainers we would have a trade deal, and Leavers we could leave the transition period with no deal after all. Leave united, and Remainers splintered.

To add insult to injury, nobody ever interrogated Johnson on any aspect of what would follow. How much alignment and integration would we have? What would fishing access look like? What would happen to businesses in Northern Ireland? He batted away any serious query with the same insistence that everything would be fine, there would be no checks, and we would simply “get Brexit done.” None of his opponents could challenge him because they were all trapped in their own Brexit mess, while the whole country was promised an end to nearly four years of torture. In the end Johnson really did have his cake and eat it.

The essential point is that neither Johnson’s deal nor his election victory was inevitable. Before Johnson prorogued parliament, he attempted to hold an election on 15th October. If he had succeeded, he would have had to go into that election either promising to negotiate and ratify a new deal in the two weeks before the 31st October deadline, or simply promising no deal at all. Neither was credible and either could have defeated him.

MPs rejected the election proposal on 4th September and then again on 10th September. The first time, the Benn Act had not yet been passed and no deal posed a looming risk. The second time, it had been passed but opposition leaders made a more political calculation: they wanted Johnson to undergo the humiliation of actually requesting that extension. Here was the error of hubris. They should have agreed to the election at the PM’s second request.

Some feared that Johnson could win an election, quickly repeal the Benn Act and leave with no deal, but it would have been almost impossible for him to do so within the timetable. During an election period the government would not have been allowed to negotiate a new treaty with the EU. Johnson would have had to fight the election on a de facto prospectus of no deal.

That election would have centred on the date of 31st October. Instead of playing the “oven-ready” statesman, Johnson would have had to present himself as a card shark gambling people’s medicines on his election victory. Meanwhile Labour and the Lib Dems would have harmonised their messaging on the dangers of the Tories’ impending cliff-edge. In the same way that Corbyn and Jo Swinson pulled together so often in August and September to stop no deal, they may well have coordinated some of their tactics over the course of an October election campaign. In the end, a frightened public, despite all its reservations, may easily have settled for the lesser evil of Corbyn.

As we know, none of that happened. We have no idea what the result of a 15th October election would have been. All we know is that Johnson tried to secure it twice, and would not have had a deal to advertise if he had been successful. As for Labour and the Lib Dems, they spent much of the eventual December election attacking each other, and on Thursday seats which should have gone to one, such as Kensington, Wimbledon and Cheltenham, were blocked by the other and duly went Conservative.

And yet the tragedy remains that the election delivered a majority for the Conservatives only in terms of seats. 52 percent of the electorate—a number whose irony speaks for itself – voted for parties either supporting a referendum or an explicit Remain position. Just as voters support Remain in opinion polls, the British public did not reject that outcome on Thursday. And yet despite all that, Brexit is coming, fast and hard. It promises to be a disaster. And as a consequence of our many mistakes, we must simply watch it unfold.