Not for the first time in UK history, it is Conservatives who’ve shown themselves to be the country’s most radical politicians – radical in the sense of being prepared to tear up conventions and take big risks to transform the country in the ways they crave. Love them or hate them, they go for it. Boris Johnson’s decision to shut down parliament to help him deliver Brexit is in line with that tradition. And it could work out well for the Tory ex-London Mayor.
Most observers of Westminster politics think an early general election more likely as a result of this ploy and – to cut a very complicated story short – that it could take place before “Brexit Day” of 31 October. The 17 October is being discussed as a likely date for it.
What might the outcome of an election be? Johnson would hope to secure a majority big enough to allow him to do whatever he wants. And recent national opinion polls look ominous for Labour. Johnson’s novelty value and his apparent progress towards uniting the pro-Brexit vote nationally have given his party large opinion poll leads over a leaden Labour and its closet Leaver leader Jeremy Corbyn.
However, London, which is both Labour-dominated and a bulwark of Remain, could give its former Tory Mayor a headache. No doubt PM Johnson and his advisers have already factored in the prospect of losing seats in London (and Scotland) as a price worth paying for gaining more seats in other parts of England. But how many London seats might the Tories lose if the other parties – and even pro-Remain Tory MPs – worked together in the capital to thwart Johnson and remove him from Number 10?
Even starting to imagine the sorts of arrangements required is difficult. Tribalism, egos, arguments and some powerful aversions are involved. Any discussions about parties agreeing not to stand candidates in target seats in order to improve the chances of a non-Tory winning them are likely to lead to arguments about which of this parties is best placed to achieve that end. What would the criteria be? Labour might argue that finishing a close second in the 2017 general election should count for most, but Liberal Democrats would surely point to the more recently – and arguably more relevant in any so-called “Brexit election” – outcomes of May’s European elections, where they took larger vote shares than Labour in boroughs where Tory Mps could be vulnerable. In addition, the electorate in every constituency is different and distinctive.
In any case, there is no guarantee that voters would behave in the ways theoretical Remain Alliance builders wanted them to, at least not in sufficient numbers. The European elections showed that plenty of London Remainers shifting their allegiance from Labour to Lib Dem over Europe, specifically Corbyn’s stubbornly ambivalent attitude to it. But unless that happened on a big enough scale there is a risk of the Remain vote being split to the Conservatives’ advantage.
To take it from the very top, Labour activists were excited by the narrowing of Johnson’s margin of victory over their candidate in Uxbridge & West Ruislip in 2017 to 11 per cent, or just over 5,000 votes. Could the PM be turfed out in his own backyard? If the Liberal Democrats and Greens agreed not to contest the seat, would that make the crucial difference? Remainers should not get carried away. The Lib Dems already have a candidate in place, and even had an anti-Johnson pact with other parties been made two years ago and all the votes that would have gone to the Lib Dem and Green candidates gone to Labour’s instead, it would not have been enough to defeat “Boris”. There were also 1,577 votes for Ukip’s candidate. Voters that way inclined might weigh in on Johnson’s side next time. There was no shortage of them in that part of the metropolis at the European elections earlier this year – in Hillingdon, the borough that contains Uxbridge & West Ruislip, the Brexit Party took the largest share of the vote.
True, there are lots of imponderables. In normal times, Johnson would expect his incumbency factor to be strengthened by his becoming PM, but might his behaviour since entering Number 10 mobilise a local mood against him? There again, might Remainer disillusion with Corbyn dilute Labour’s appeal? That possibility might be worrying Emma Dent Coad, who gained Kensington from the Tories so unexpectedly in 2017 by just 20 votes but saw the Lib Dems take the biggest vote share in Kensington & Chelsea borough in May.
Could it also hurt the hopes of Emma Whysall, who came who came unexpectedly close to causing a shock in Tory-held Chipping Barnet two years ago and will fight the seat against Brexiter Theresa Villiers again? Elsewhere in the borough of Barnet, Labour came even closer to regaining Hendon, which it lost to the Tories by a whisker in 2010, and winning Finchley & Golders Green, but last year the party lost seat in the council election on a day when Labour made gains across the capital, with some putting this down to a rejection of the party by Jewish Londoners concerned about Labour’s continuing problems with antisemitism among its members.
In another Outer London constituency, there are definite prospects for parties collaborating to defeat a Brexit Tory. Dedicated Eurosceptic Zac Goldsmith won Richmond Park in 2017 by a margin of just 45 votes, having been deprived of it in a 2016 post-referendum by-election that was ostensibly about Heathrow expansion. In both the by-election – which Goldsmith contested as an Independent – and the subsequent general election, the local Greens chose to help Lib Dem candidate Sarah Olney by not fielding one of their own. Last year, the Lib Dems and Greens formed an electoral pact for some wards in the Richmond-upon-Thames borough election, which seemed to work well for both. And the Lib Dems surged to 52.3 per cent of the vote there at this year’s Euros, which bodes well for their chances in any near future “Brexit election”. Last year, the party took control of neighbouring Kingston-upon-Thames Council, in which part of the Richmond Park seat lies.
But Richmond Park also raises – and probably answers – the question about Labour’s attitude to collaborating with other parties. They didn’t sand aside there in 2016 or 2017. Would they in 2019? Would they in nearby Sutton & Cheam to help the Lib Dems regain that seat from the Conservative Paul Scully or to assist Tom Brake with extending his long story of unlikely survival in next door Carshalton & Wallingham? It doesn’t look on the cards. Labour has, only today, responded sniffily to a national analysis suggesting that a national pact between Labour and clearly anti-Brexit parties could cost Johnson up to 50 seats.
For their part, would Lib Dems countenance making way anywhere to help Labour oust a Conservative? Labour hopes to remove arch Leaver Iain Duncan Smith from Chingford & Woodford Green, but Lib Dems might struggle to make common cause with arch Corbynite Labour candidate Faiza Shaheen. They have already selected their candidate. Any prospect of red-yellow pact anywhere in London appears would surely be further reduced by rising Lib Dem hopes of challenging Labour incumbents, such as Emily Thornberry in Islington South & Finsbury, where they came close in 2005 and 2010, or in Hornsey & Wood Green, which Lib Dem Lynne Featherstone held before Catherine West relieved her of it in 2015, but where Lib Dems on her patch rejected Labour in last year’s borough elections, in which Labour lost more seats then in any other borough (including Barnet) following the successful Corbynite campaign to de-select sitting Labour councillors. We can be pretty confident that, with the Tories nowhere, Labour and Lib Dems will be at each other’s throats in Streatham, where Chuka Umunna, a leader of the Independent Group/Change UK breakaway from Labour, has since become a Lib Dem himself.
Elsewhere, we find others forms of complication. Labour ought to be favourites to take Enfield North away from Independent Group/Change UK defector Joan Ryan, but the wrong choice of candidate could see the Remain vote more deeply split – and even split three ways if Ryan runs – and the seat return to being a marginal, as it has been for most of this century. And now consider Wimbledon. Labour closed the gap on Conservative incumbent Stephen Hammond in 2017 and the Lib Dems might dare to dream of winning there, encouraged by a big Merton Council by-election gain earlier this year. Yet Hammond has been an anti-Brexit Tory rebel.
London might be Remain City, but it’s difficult to see any formal Remain Alliance catching on here beyond perhaps a few acts of localised altruism by the Greens. More likely is an informal one nurtured by non-party tactical voting campaigns, though the same questions about its possible effects would apply and the same consequences might still flow from Corbyn’s “constructive ambiguity” over Brexit, helping Johnson get his way. What a strange sad, legacy that would be for a man who thinks the word “radical” properly applies to him.
Updated on 2 September, 2019.
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