Avoiding Boris Johnson’s “People v Politicians election” trap

There is a very real risk of Boris Johnson’s newly right-wing Conservatives winning a snap election by the same distortion of truth and pedalling of fantasy that enabled Leave to win in the referendum.

Boris Johnson, making statement after Commons returned from unlawful prorogation

News of Dominic Cummings describing the present Brexit chaos as “a walk in the park” nails the idea that what’s been going on recently is an inept Prime Minister making a mess.

Boris Johnson has been talking of a “People v Politicians” election soon. He could do well, especially if he gets to dictate the timetable and force an election this autumn (as he seems to want).

Horror at his conduct is causing a surge of support for the Liberal Democrats, and there is the temptation to support an election because it will almost certainly produce many more Liberal Democrat MPs, but the real risk is that they will be opposing a deeply dangerous Johnson-majority government.

On the other side, what’s going on now can be spun as pro-Remain MPs and pro-Remain civil servants conspiring with pro-Remain judges to subvert “the will of the people”.

Comments I’ve seen on twitter include: “I am hoping that Boris, Cummings and JRM are just using prorogation as distraction for the main event” and “I agree with everything Boris said” (in his Commons statement after Parliament resumed sitting).

The polls show support for Johnson and for the Conservative party at a level that is a million miles from what I’d expect of a Prime Minister who’s just lost a major Supreme Court case — but isn’t crazy in the light of Tory facebook adverts attacking “opposition leaders for wanting ‘to ignore our Brexit vote’”, The Sun, The Express and The Daily Mail attacking the Supreme Court judges and The Daily Mail saying “More than half of British voters want an election NOW as they blast ‘Establishment plot’ to block Brexit”.

As it stands, if Johnson ignores (or finds a way round) the Benn Act to crash us our of the EU on 31 October, the top news stories will be that Brexit has happened, outrage from most MPs, and (doubtless) the start of another court case. Those can all be spun as anger from “the establishment”. That’s an effective way to bury the stories about queues of lorries at Dover and problems on the Irish border. Those who were alarmed earlier in the year by the stories of the military being ready in case of rioting if Brexit happens will not have been re-assured by Johnson tweeting a photo of himself surrounded by senior military on 19 September.

Expelling 21 respected MPs gave Johnson a way to be seen to make a stand against the “remainer Establishment”. If he ends up in the courts again, he can, again, be painted as making a “heroic stand”. His supporters like this.

The Leave campaign did a brilliant job of preying on people’s fears. They never presented a coherent image of how we would leave the EU. They dangled impossible hopes that are still there because they have not yet collided with reality.

David Cameron wasn’t the only person to assume a Leave victory was unthinkable. An “unthinkable” Johnson victory only needs the pedalling of more impossible hopes — especially if “they” or “the establishment” can be blamed when they are shown to be impossible.

For now, this means delaying a General Election, at least until the reality of Johnson’s “Brexit deal” Johnson cuts through the hubris and until realistic assessments of what “no deal” would mean get heard. It will be essential to portray an election now as irresponsible (which it is), rather than just an “establishment delay”.

The anxiety this is stirring up makes it hard to think. It will frighten some people into voting Conservative, mistaking Johnson’s “strong man” language for competence and wisdom.

The Liberal Democrats messaging will need to be clear and stable, speaking to those who have seen through Johnson and those who can be seduced by his fake simplicities.

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