A polling station in Ludlow. Photo: Pixabay/Pexels A polling station in Ludlow. Photo: Pixabay/Pexels

No summer recess for our side as vitalising extra-parliamentary pressure becomes a priority, argues Alex Snowdon

The Tories are gearing up for an autumn general election. There are numerous well-informed reports suggesting that an election this year – most likely in November – is on the way. The idea is that Boris Johnson will oversee the UK’s departure from the EU on 31 October, most likely in a ‘no deal’ scenario, and follow it very swiftly with an election. A general election is precisely what the current impasse requires; it is the only democratic and credible way forward. It is outrageous, however, that the outgoing prime minister could be able to manipulate when this takes place for party-political advantage.

There is even a suggestion that it could take place on Friday 1 November for maximum opportunistic gain. This may, however, be that bit too transparent and Johnson’s team will instead opt for a Thursday later in the month. It shows how utterly desperate the Tories are to hold on to office. If a ‘no confidence’ motion is passed almost as soon as parliament returns from its summer recess on 3 September, there should really be an announcement of a general election within two weeks. That would take place in October. It would be a huge affront to democracy to postpone that for opportunistic reasons. 

The proposed timing is yet another example of the Tories making big decisions on the basis of its own internal problems and calculations about how to deal with challenges to its hegemony of right-wing politics.  There is talk from Downing Street officials of seeking ‘to neuter the Brexit Party’. Recall that David Cameron originally promised a referendum on EU membership in a bid to maintain the cohesion of the Tory party and to win over UKIP voters.

Going to the polls is almost unavoidable for the Tories. The majority of one (with the DUP factored in) and the lack of parliamentary support for a ‘no deal’ Brexit mean that Johnson faces no alternative. A ‘no confidence’ motion in the Commons could be successful. But, even if narrowly defeated, it may be the trigger for Johnson choosing to call an election.

Johnson’s calculation will be that holding an election straight off the back of ‘delivering Brexit’ will boost Tory support, mainly due to convincing those currently swayed by the Brexit Party that such a protest vote isn’t necessary. It is noteworthy, as I mentioned in last week’s briefing, that Johnson becoming prime minister has not automatically drained Nigel Farage’s party of support. The latest polls indicate around 15% support for the Brexit Party.

Winning back ex-Tory voters unhappy with the government’s failure to deliver Brexit is the dominant electoral calculation for the Tories. The sooner the election happens, the less time there is for disillusionment to grow with the reality of a hard-right ‘no deal’ version of Brexit.

Don’t believe the Tory hype

It is the looming election that explains the rush of new Tory policy pledges in the last couple of weeks. Airy promises of increased NHS funding and 20,000 more police officers are designed to enhance the new Tory leadership’s popularity and lay the groundwork for an election campaign. Obviously such pledges ought to be treated with great scepticism: Johnson has already rolled back on his commitment to increase schools funding made during the leadership campaign.

Furthermore, the pledge to have more police officers has now been followed up with two announcements that bolster a right-wing authoritarian agenda. One is to increase the use of stop-and-search by police – something that, based on past and current experience, will mean more harassment of black people. The other is a pledge to put £2.5 billion into creating 10,000 more prison places. We already have high levels of incarceration and there should instead be a concerted effort to reduce prison numbers.

These announcements are about exploiting fear and insecurity to strengthen a very right-wing political approach. There is talk of the Tories planning to fight an election campaign on the basis of ‘Brexit, crime and the NHS’, so this is a taste of what to expect.

Numerous new appointments have been made and the Number Ten operation has been reorganised with a general election in mind. This is typified by Johnson’s chief special adviser Dominic Cummings, a former director of the Vote Leave campaign, who has great influence in the new regime. There is reportedly a surge in fresh donations from some wealthy pro-Brexit business supporters. Tory MPs have told journalists that their constituency parties are being put on a war footing.

Add to all of this a slowdown in the economy. For the first time since 2012 there was contraction in the British economy in the last quarter, i.e. April to June, with growth of minus 0.2%. If this happens for two successive quarters, it counts as a recession. There have also been serious jitters in the currency markets in the last week, linked to fears of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

Sajid Javid, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, unsurprisingly blamed the GDP figures on “a challenging period across the global economy”. That certainly strikes a different note to the Tories’ response to the recession during Labour’s time in office a decade ago.

No to a government of national unity

How should Labour navigate its way through this political crisis? With some audacity – or barefaced cheek – some of its MPs are talking up the possibility of a brief ‘government of national unity’. The idea is that September will see MPs voting no confidence in the government, followed immediately by backbench MPs from various parties – Labour, SNP, Lib Dems and so on, perhaps even including some dissident Tories – forming a government that would only last as long as needed to request an extension to the Brexit deadline. This would allow the UK to remain in the EU beyond 31 October.

There is an obvious problem here. In the event of the current government losing the confidence of MPs, the natural next step is for the Opposition to see if it can form a government. That means the Labour Party – and it means Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. With the current parliamentary numbers, such an outcome (beyond perhaps a brief caretaker government) is exceedingly unlikely. So the next step will be the announcement of a general election.

Talk of a government of national unity is therefore preposterous. Why should the Leader of the Opposition step aside to allow a cross-party assortment of backbenchers to take the reins? There is method in it though. Talking up the prospect helps shift the entire political debate. It is designed to weaken the momentum for a general election and instead shift focus to what happens inside parliament. It puts greater emphasis on stopping or delaying Brexit than on anything else.

This latest rhetoric exposes the real priorities and motivations of Britain’s liberal centrists, whether in the Lib Dems (or other minor opposition parties) or on the Labour benches. If their top priority was stopping a disastrous ‘no deal’ Tory Brexit they would support Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister in the aftermath of a Commons vote ousting Boris Johnson. However, preventing a Corbyn-led government is more important to them, so they conspire to avoid that outcome at all costs.

General election – not parliamentary manoeuvres

John McDonnell was absolutely right to say that, should the Tories lose a confidence vote, he will be putting Jeremy Corbyn in a cab and sending him to Buckingham Palace to inform the Queen that Labour is prepared to form a new government. This has led to some hysterical reaction, for example the Telegraph shrieking that McDonnell is issuing calls to ‘march on the palace’. I’m not sure when one bloke in a taxi constituted a protest march, still less an insurrectionary one.

Cummings’ threats to delay or ignore calls for a general election and the talk of a government of national unity are two sides of the same coin. Both prospects are an affront to democracy. They both seek to avoid or postpone a general election happening in the wake of the government losing a Commons vote. They are both motivated in large part by terror of a Corbyn-led government.

In response to this we should step up agitation for a general election, marshal the opposition to the Tory government and defend democracy. We need a concerted push to win a ‘no confidence’ vote in September, which includes lobbying of MPs, and more widely an escalation of anti-Tory mobilisation. The demonstration outside Tory conference in Manchester on 29 September will be a focus for that. The big climate day of action on 20 September can also raise the political temperature.

We cannot allow ourselves to be mere spectators to an autumn of parliamentary intrigue. We instead need mass extra-parliamentary pressure for a general election, to kick Johnson out, and to get Corbyn in to government.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).