BREXIT UPDATE 52: GENERAL ELECTION: THE FIRST WEEK
As we have seen in the most recent Brexit Updates, Johnson is fraudulently framing this election as “the people versus Parliament”, with Johnson battling to fulfil the will of the people to “get Brexit done” in the face of a Remainer Parliament which aims to keep the UK in the EU. Johnson has been forced, so the story goes, to go to the people, because Parliament — despite all his herculean efforts and despite letting his excellent deal go through its first stage by 30 votes – has locked him into an extension and blocked the deal at its last hurdle in order to prevent Brexit. Therefore, the framing concludes, he is appealing to the people to send him back with a comfortable majority in a Leaver Parliament which will finally get the deal over the line and “Get Brexit Done”.
Johnson’s repeated but confusing metaphor for his deal is that it is “oven-ready”, so that all that is needed is to “put it in the microwave as soon as we get back”. In one variation of this motif, he said:
“this deal is ready to go. It is done. Parliament….before they delayed it, they gave it a preliminary seal of approval, if you remember. You just whack it in the microwave, gas mark – I’m not very good at cooking – gas mark 4. It is there. It is ready to go. Prick the lid, put it in and then we can get on”.
Johnson has been mocked on Twitter for apparently thinking a microwave runs on gas; it has also been pointed out that an “oven-ready” meal intended for an oven could explode or cause food poisoning if put in a microwave. Other tweeters have criticised him for appearing to endorse the convenience culture of unhealthy, additive-ridden “oven-ready” meals, instead of encouraging people to spend time cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients. And others have attacked the whole idea of a quick-fix “whack it in the microwave” approach to such an important international treaty.
But, in the initial stages of this election, it has seemed that Johnson’s framing has been proving effective. In a poll taken before the campaign officially began, one poll (an Opinium poll that came out on November 2) put him on a 16 point lead over Labour.  But on the first day of the election campaign (Wednesday, November 6), the Welsh Secretary resigned because he had endorsed a Welsh Assembly candidate who had sabotaged a rape trial. And two days earlier, on Monday November 4, Jacob Rees-Mogg gave an interview in which he said that victims of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster had lacked “common sense” in heeding the advice of the fire service to stay put. Another Tory MP then made matters worse in a later interview by saying that the reason that Rees-Mogg would have left the building rather than accept the advice of the authorities is that he is an authority himself, because he is so clever.  The implication was that Jacob Rees-Mogg wouldn’t have died in the Grenfell fire because he is so much cleverer than people who live in council flats. There has been widespread outrage over these comments.
Last Sunday (November 10), the results of another Opinium poll were published in the Observer (the Guardian’s Sunday paper). The Tory lead was still high – 12 points – but their lead had dropped by four points (the Tories had fallen by one point and Labour had gone up three points). There appeared to be the first signs that Labour’s strategy of trying to turn the debate away from Brexit and towards issues such as the National Health Service, poverty and the environment was beginning to succeed. The BBC (which is generally anti-Corbyn) commented on the overall poll situation on Monday (November 11): “The Conservatives have continued their steady upward progress. But the tentative signs of a Labour recovery have also become firmer.”  And a Survation poll that came out on Tuesday (November 12) has put Labour only six points behind the Tories.
One problem with Johnson’s strategy of calling an election while the UK is still in the EU is that the Tories are vulnerable to attacks from the Brexit Party. After a period of keeping a low profile, Nigel Farage emerged again into the limelight last week, offering an alliance with the Tories if Johnson would “drop the deal”, which he criticised as a “Remainer’s Brexit”. When Johnson refused to drop his deal, Farage said he would field 600 Brexit Party candidates to split the Leave vote, though he later said he would not be standing himself. But Farage later softened his stance, saying:
“I think if you drop the clause that allows for endless extension [ie extension of the transition period (during which everything stays the same) that is due to come into effect after the deal has been passed], that’s a huge head start, and, secondly, that this is a trade negotiation, not one based on political and economic alignment”.
Soon after this, in a video posted on Twitter, Johnson – clearly responding to Farage’s move — said he would definitely not extend the transition period beyond the end of 2020; and added that he would achieve a “super Canada-plus” free trade agreement with the EU, without close political or economic alignment, before the end of the transition period. Farage responded by declaring that – in order to avoid boosting the Liberal Democrats in Tory-held seats — the Brexit Party would not be standing candidates in the 317 seats won by the Conservative Party in the 2017 election; Farage would only be fielding candidates in Labour-held seats. But many commentators have pointed out that this is not really much help to the Tories, because Johnson is counting on winning Labour-held Leave seats in South Wales, the Midlands and the North, so the Brexit Party will simply be a rival for the Tories in their targeting of these seats. Farage has been under pressure, both from the Tories and from some within his own party, to withdraw all his candidates, but is so far refusing.
The Tories deny that they have formed an electoral pact with the Brexit Party; but Corbyn has commented: “I think what we have before us is an alliance between Donald Trump and Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson” – a pact, he says, that will lead to a “sweetheart trade deal that will threaten all our regulations and all our conditions and all our public services”. He continues:
“You’ll then be saying: ‘whatever happened to our wonderful National Health Service, whatever happened to all the regulations we had that protected our rights at work, our right to a clean environment and our right to safe food?’.”
Meanwhile, the three Remain parties of England and Wales — the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru (the Welsh nationalists) and the Greens — have formed a “Remain Alliance”, agreeing not to stand against each other in 60 seats in order not to split the Remain vote. The elections expert Sir John Curtice argues that in practice this arrangement would probably only affect about five or six seats, but, if the election is very close, they could be crucial in depriving the Tories of a majority.
But since last week, the election has become dominated by the issue of the floods in South Yorkshire and the Midlands. Last week, South Yorkshire experienced a month’s worth of rain in one day. The river Don burst its banks; and one village, called Fishlake, was so submerged that almost the entire village has had to be evacuated. At the weekend, Johnson visited Derbyshire, in the East Midlands, and said that “the flooding was not looking like something we need to escalate to the level of a national emergency”. But Corbyn wrote to him: “If this had happened in Surrey [ie one of the “Home Counties” close to London], not Yorkshire or the East Midlands, it seems far more likely that a national emergency would have been declared.” Rescue and help were initially coordinated mainly by remarkable community rallying-round, rather than by the emergency services. In response to Corbyn’s prompting, Johnson chaired yesterday (Tuesday November 12) a meeting of the emergency COBRA committee; and since then the army has been dispatched to provide help for flood victims; but Labour has called the government provisions “too little too late”. Johnson was heckled on a visit to Yorkshire yesterday.
Of course the floods are inevitably being politicised for the general election – but they bear witness to the real, non-Brexit issues that the country is facing.
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