Elections are a perilous proposition for both the Conservatives and Labour. Recent YouGov polling looks good for Johnson, giving the Tories 35%, Labour 25%, the Liberal Democrats 16%, and the Brexit Party 11%. Yet recent precedent causes concern: David Cameron had a similar polling margin in 2015 but only won a small majority of seats, while Theresa May lost the party’s majority in 2017 despite favorable polls. The Conservatives are likely to do poorly in pro-EU Scotland, further hurt by the recent resignation of the party’s talented Scottish leader Ruth Davidson; the Scottish National Party is likely to regain seats lost in the 2017 snap election. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party could attract former Conservative voters who are frustrated with the government’s failure to deliver Brexit, possibly pushing Johnson to take a hardline stance that costs him the support of moderate voters. The Liberal Democrats, under new leader Jo Swinson, have gained three MPs in recent months after Labour and Tory defections and will appeal to voters seeking a clear pro-EU stance. The Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats dominated European Parliament elections in May, but it remains unclear how voter support will translate to seats in a first-past-the-post general election.
Voters will face a choice based on potentially contradictory interests and views—on Brexit, the domestic policy agenda for a five-year term, and the party leaders. Johnson’s apparent strategy of linking his Brexit stance to Corbyn’s unpopularity might work. A Politico/Hanbury poll found 43% of respondents believed Corbyn as prime minister would be the worst possible outcome, while 35% said a no-deal Brexit would be worse and nearly 25% said they are equally bad options.
What Does This Mean for Brexit?
The timing and outcome of elections could have significant consequences for Brexit.
- Brexit with a deal: If Johnson wins mid-October elections, he could seek parliamentary agreement on a deal. He could bring Theresa May’s deal, which he supported on her third attempt, back to parliament for a vote. If Johnson has a sufficient majority, he could seek to amend the backstop; the easiest tweak would be reverting to the EU’s original offer that it apply only to Northern Ireland rather than the entire U.K. It was changed at the insistence of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has been propping up the minority Conservative government. A Brexit delay could also allow time for an eventual deal under Johnson or a different prime minister.
- Brexit without a deal: If Johnson wins mid-October elections and can’t get an acceptable deal from the EU or through Parliament, he could try to repeal the Benn bill (as parliaments cannot bind their successors) and deliver a no-deal Brexit on October 31. No-deal would remain the default if the EU refused an extension.
- Second referendum: If opposition parties win elections—either before or after October 31—they could pursue an alternative course on Brexit, including a second referendum. Possibilities include a Labour majority government or a coalition with some combination of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, or the Scottish National Party.