November 23, 2019
BREXIT UPDATE 53: THE SECOND WEEK
As I described in Brexit Update 52, an unofficial electoral bargain has been struck between Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. According to the terms of this pact, Johnson has promised that: a), if he returns as PM and his deal is passed by Parliament, he will not allow any extension of the Brexit interim/transition period — which is due to finish at the end of 2020 but which, according to the provisions of the deal, can be extended; and b) before the end of 2020, he will negotiate a Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU that will not involve UK political or economic alignment with the EU.
In other words, Johnson, under Farage’s pressure, has agreed to an extremely “hard” Brexit (in fact, if — as is very likely — Johnson does not succeed in negotiating this free trade agreement by the end of 2020, the UK will at that time again be faced with the danger of leaving with No Deal). In return for these promises, Farage, who had begun the unofficial bargaining by threatening to field 600 Brexit Party candidates, has withdrawn Brexit Party candidates from the 317 seats won by the Tories in 2017. This removal of half of the Brexit Party’s candidates, with a consequent flocking back of Leavers to the Conservatives, has led to a spike in the polls for the Tories.
Farage has, however, kept the Brexit Party candidates in Labour-held seats. This still poses a problem for Johnson, because, in order to obtain a majority, he needs to win Labour Leave seats in the traditional Labour heartlands of South Wales and the Midlands and North of England. There is a danger for Johnson that the “hard Brexit” vote could be split between the Tories and the Brexit Party, thus allowing Labour candidates to win these seats. But Farage is refusing to withdraw his candidates, insisting that Brexit Party MPs are needed in order to hold Johnson to his promises. Farage also says he believes Labour Leave voters will be likely to vote for the Brexit Party, whereas “for historical reasons and cultural reasons”, they would not vote Conservative “if you paid them”.
In a video posted on Twitter on November 14, Farage alleged that he and eight “senior figures” in his party had been offered – in exchange for standing down their candidates — jobs “in the [Brexit] negotiating team and in government departments” and there had been “hints at peerages too” The former Tory MP and practising Catholic Ann Widdecombe, who is now a Brexit Party candidate, said she had been offered a role in the next phase of Brexit negotiations if she would stand down as a candidate; she added that she was prepared to swear to this on the Bible. Johnson has strenuously denied these accusations; but the Metropolitan Police in London are currently assessing allegations of electoral fraud in relation to these claims.
On Tuesday (November 19), a head to head debate took place on the mainstream TV station ITV between Johnson and Corbyn. Johnson took his stand almost entirely on Brexit, repeatedly asking Corbyn the same question: if he (according to his plan) becomes Prime Minister, achieves a “soft Brexit” deal with the EU and then holds a referendum in which the choice will be between the Labour deal or Remain, will he campaign for his own deal or for Remain? It is true that Corbyn never specifically answered the question as to his own campaigning preference, instead reiterating that he wanted to unite the country and give the decision to the people – a decision that he would implement, whatever the outcome. But, though Johnson clearly wanted to force Corbyn into a position where he seemed evasive and indecisive, Johnson himself ended up sounding like a gramophone record that had got stuck in a groove. Only the first part of the debate was reserved for a discussion of Brexit; the second part was devoted to non-Brexit issues. But even here Johnson, ignoring the terms of the debate, kept trying to bring the discussion back to Brexit. Corbyn, on the other hand, took his own stand on the non-Brexit issues and notably scored against Johnson in relation to the National Health Service. In response to Johnson’s claim that he will be building 40 new hospitals, Corbyn pointed out that only six have been allocated sufficient funding for rebuilding programmes. And he accused the Johnson government of having held “a series of secret meetings with the US in which they were proposing to open up our NHS ‘markets’ –as they call them — to American companies”. At this point, Corbyn held up a document attesting to the secret meetings that he had obtained under a Freedom of Information request.
Who won the debate? According to a snap ITV poll held on Twitter, Corbyn won hands down: 78 per cent said Corbyn had won, compared with only 22 per cent for Johnson. But, in a remarkable act of collective suppression, most of the mainstream media have ignored the ITV poll, instead citing only a Yougov poll that gave a very narrow victory to Johnson: 51 per cent said Johnson had won, 49 per cent supported Corbyn. The huge contrast between the two results casts some doubt in general on the reliability of the polls.
Corbyn has now clarified his position on whether he will campaign for Leave or Remain. In a BBC debate yesterday (Friday November 22) that featured the leaders of the UK’s four main parties – the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP — Corbyn said that, as a Prime Minister who wants to unite the country, he will adopt a neutral position, supporting neither Leave or Remain. Several members of the Shadow Cabinet, however, have made it clear that they will campaign for Remain.  Corbyn is likely to allow them to adopt a free campaigning position. But there is a precedent for this in the 2016 referendum. Although the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, supported Remain, no less than six members of his Cabinet backed the Vote Leave campaign. 
In the event of a hung Parliament (ie one in which no party has a majority), will the Lib Dems and the SNP back Labour? At yesterday’s debate, Jo Swinson, the leader of the Lib Dems, insisted she would put neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. Swinson’s hostility to Corbyn, however, seems to be mainly tactical. The Lib Dems are targeting Tory Remainers in Conservative/Lib Dems marginal seats. These Tory Remainers, while appalled at Johnson’s “hard” Brexit, are also deeply opposed to the prospect of a Corbyn-led government. So, by insisting that she will not put Corbyn into Downing Street, Jo Swinson is attempting to allay their fears. But, in the event of a hung Parliament, it is hard to believe that the Lib Dems would allow a hard-line Brexiteer Johnson government to take power if they had the ability to stop this by supporting Corbyn, who has promised a second referendum in which Remain will be an option. Positions taken during the election campaign – during which all parties claim they are aiming to achieve a majority – tend to change once the results are declared. In the same debate, Corbyn said that, at least in the first two years of a Labour government, he would not allow another referendum on independence for Scotland. But, as the leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, put it in yesterday’s BBC programme:
“Having heard Jeremy Corbyn, do you think he’s going to walk away from the chance to end austerity, to protect the NHS, to stop universal credit, simply because he wants, for a couple of years, to prevent Scotland to have the right to self-determination?”
She said she did not envisage going into a coalition with Labour, but – in exchange for a referendum on independence for Scotland – the SNP would enter into a more informal arrangement to support a Corbyn-led government, in the event of a hung Parliament.
As the elections expert Sir John Curtice has pointed out (cited in Brexit Update 52), Johnson has to achieve a majority, whereas Corbyn does not need to win a majority because he has potential allies who could back a Corbyn-led government, whether as coalition partners or in some kind of informal arrangement. After the big recent spike – during which one poll put the gap between the Tories and Labour at 18 points — in the polls in the immediate aftermath of Farage’s withdrawal of half his candidates, the gap between the two main parties has narrowed again, though Johnson is still about ten points ahead in most recent polls.
On Thursday (November 21), Labour published a highly radical manifesto. Brexit only occupies a small portion of it; instead Labour focuses on policies such as: free personal care for the elderly; putting the UK “on track for a net-zero carbon energy system within the 2030s”; the scrapping of university tuition fees and abolition of the charitable tax status of private schools; free broadband for all; axing of a controversial benefits system known as “universal credit” that is driving people further into poverty; building affordable homes and increasing social housing; and the nationalisation of key industries. According to the BBC, this last pledge would be “the biggest ownership takeover by the state since the nationalisations that occurred after the outbreak of World War Two”. Labour’s main hope is to turn the national debate away from Brexit and towards the prospect of a social transformation that can begin to address the grievances that led to the vote for Brexit. The election campaign is still to some extent fixated on Brexit; but significant signs continue that this situation is changing. The strongest of these signs is a recent poll showing that the NHS has now replaced Brexit as the main concern of the British electorate.