It seems to have backfired. Several cabinet members, including his brother, resigned. The Conservative Party expelled 21 members of Parliament (MPs) for defying the government over Brexit. Scotland’s highest court ruled that the suspension of Parliament was unlawful; the U.K. Supreme Court will reach its own ruling later this week. MPs united both to block Britain from leaving the European Union next month without a deal and to deny Johnson an election on his terms.
Still, most analysts expect that a general election looms, most likely in November. Johnson wants to run a “people versus Parliament” campaign, mobilizing voters against what he views as Westminster’s obstructionist tactics.
But that strategy faces serious electoral trade-offs. In new research, we find that for much of the British electorate, Europe has become the defining issue that determines party allegiance, overwhelming voters’ views on almost everything else. That poses a long-term challenge to Johnson and the party he now leads.
The Brexit fight is leading to a political realignment
Ever since the June 2016 referendum to “remain” in or “leave” the E.U., voters have been leaving their old parties and joining new ones on the basis of their views on Brexit. Conservatives who were pro-Europe before the referendum — about 39 percent of the party voted to remain — have abandoned the party, while Euroskeptics from other parties have swung behind the Conservatives.
These realignments over Brexit have led to some of the most extreme volatility in recent British political history. But they also tell us something about the importance of issue positioning for voters. A large body of social science literature, dating to at least a half-century, argues that party loyalties, rather than policy preferences, drive voters’ choices. In this view, voters do not hold consistent or stable ideological preferences. Instead, they respond above all to partisan cues when they evaluate policies.
In the British context, an earlier generation of scholarship argued that “allegiance to party is one of the central facts of the British elector’s political awareness.” The most extreme version of this argument, outlined in one journalist’s recent summary of the academic research on American politics, maintains that “there’s basically no plausible position a politician or political party can endorse or enact that will have a meaningful impact on their likelihood of retaking political power.”
In contemporary British politics, at least, that is not true. Traditional political loyalties have weakened, electoral volatility has increased, and voters are punishing and rewarding political parties and candidates for their policy positions — or at least, their positions on one big issue, Brexit. On some issues — European integration, in this case — most voters don’t simply follow their psychological attachments to their political parties. Brexit has given rise to new political identities, which cut across old party lines and shape how voters view the world.
This makes electioneering complicated
Johnson has doubled down on these new divisions by pursuing a confrontational approach as Conservative Party leader. He has purged Tory moderates, including two former chancellors and the grandson of Winston Churchill, and declared that he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than ask Brussels for a delay to Brexit.
As a result, the Conservatives face electoral losses in areas that backed remain, such as the south and southwest, as well as Scotland, where popular Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has resigned. To win a majority in the next election, then, the Conservatives must consolidate the leave vote, neutralizing Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party and winning towns in Labour strongholds in northern England that voted to leave the E.U.
At the same time, Johnson needs the remain vote to be split between the resurgent Liberal Democrats (polling about 18 percent) and Labour (polling about 24 percent), whose leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is deeply unpopular. Labour has promised to hold a second referendum, while the Liberal Democrats pledged this week that if they win the next election, they will simply cancel Brexit “on day one.”
This strategy may gain Johnson a majority — he’s leading in the polls, at around 34 percent, although some recent forecasts predict another hung Parliament. But it entails the continued transformation of the Conservative Party into one defined above all by Brexit.
It is unclear whether Johnson could later tack back to a more moderate and socially liberal conservatism. Our research finds that once Euroskeptic voters affiliated with the Conservatives, their views on economic policy, at least, evolved in a more Conservative direction, suggesting that they are receptive to cues from parties and leaders they trust and that they care less about other issues than they do about Brexit. This might give Johnson some leeway with these voters going forward, provided he can deliver an exit from the E.U.
Meanwhile, Farage has proposed a “nonaggression pact,” under which the Conservatives would step aside and allow the Brexit Party, currently polling around 14 percent, to run unimpeded against about 80 Labour, leave-voting MPs in the north and the Midlands. In return, the Brexit Party would step aside for the Conservatives in seats across the rest of the country — provided the Conservatives backed a no-deal exit from the E.U.
Such pacts are rare in British politics — and this one is unlikely to succeed. But the offer illustrates the central dilemma the Conservatives face. Accept Farage’s conditions, and the Conservatives are likely to lose even more embittered remainers to the Liberal Democrats in more affluent, urban, traditionally Conservative areas. Research carried out in the aftermath of the 2019 European election, in which the Liberal Democrats came in second and the Conservatives fifth, suggests that it was the Liberal Democrats’ surge that proved most damaging to the Conservatives. But reject Farage’s offer, and the Brexit Party could split the leave vote, threatening the Conservatives’ chances in marginal seats across the country.
It’s an unappealing choice. How the Conservatives respond will determine whether Johnson gets his parliamentary majority — and perhaps even whether Britain ever leaves the E.U.
Sam Winter-Levy (@SamWinterLevy) is a PhD candidate in politics at Princeton University.