Two big turning points in October 2019
First, the government went for the Irish Sea border deal. This surprised many and despite all its difficulties led to enough support for Brexit.
Second, opposition MPs supported an election. Surely a misjudgement by the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaderships on how well they would do.
It’s unlikely that poor election campaigns by the opposition parties were decisive.
Fragmentation of the pro-Remain and pro-second referendum parties was a, possibly the crucial factor.
A better organised Remain campaign probably would not have made a big difference.
I doubt Remainers would have gained anything by going for a soft Brexit. A mass campaign for a soft Brexit would not have got going.
Defeat was not inevitable though the odds were against us. Remainers probably could not have done very much more.
In 2019 the campaign for a referendum on the Brexit deal (a People’s Vote) and to Remain in the EU had been going well. Almost all opinion polls showed a majority of the public in favour of remaining in the EU. There had been a huge level of pro-EU activism across the country with much local grassroots campaigning in big and small towns and hundreds of demonstrators outside parliament almost daily. Three of the biggest demonstrations in British history took place in London in October 2018, March 2019 and October 2019 with around a million people on the streets each time. More and more MPs were coming around to the idea of a People’s Vote.
In contrast, gatherings of Brexiters outside parliament were mostly small, attended mainly by a far right hard core with some nasty undercurrents. No nationwide pro-Brexit mass movement had been created in any way comparable to the pro-EU movement. Their biggest demonstrations had only a few thousand, tiny compared to the pro-EU marches. There was also no evidence that Brexit was going well. No Brexiter could come up with any credible benefits. Their arguments reduced to ‘respect the referendum’ (you’re undemocratic if you don’t) and ‘believe in Britain’. It was cultism at its worst.
So what were the key factors in 2019 that led to the loss? We firstly have to remind ourselves that Remain did not lose the popular vote. Pro-Remain and pro-referendum parties won around 53% of the vote in the election. But within the UK’s distorted electoral system Remain did lose – the Conservatives won a big majority with only 43.5% of the vote.
There were two big turning points in October 2019.
The first big turning point – Boris Johnson’s Irish Sea border Brexit
Johnson’s Irish Sea border deal agreed on 17th October 2019 was not expected and surprised many. A similar deal (the ‘Northern Ireland only backstop’) had already been offered by the EU and rejected by Theresa May as it would undermine the UK’s ‘precious’ union. I followed a wide range of commentators and they all thought that the Northern Ireland unionists and right wing Conservatives would not accept it. It didn’t seem to be a viable way ahead.
So why did Johnson go for it and the hard Brexiters accept it? In early and mid-2019 there was concern among some leading Brexiters that they were going to lose their Brexit. MPs would block a no-deal exit and no other satisfactory deal could be found. Support for a referendum as the only way of resolving the matter was growing and Leave would likely lose. What finally mattered more than the risk of losing Brexit was a deal that gave Britain (but not Northern Ireland) more ‘freedom’ than Theresa May’s deal.
It is also likely that Johnson was actually using no-deal as a negotiating tactic and ultimately would not have left with no deal (though the threat of no deal at the end of December 2020 is perhaps more serious). Ominous warnings about massive trade disruption and increased tensions in Ireland, some of which became public, surely increased the pressure on Johnson and his senior ministers to find some kind of deal.
The second big turning point – opposition parties support an election
In late October Labour, the Liberal Democrats and SNP decided to support an election. Some senior figures in Labour and the Lib Dems cautioned against it. Opinion polls and Brexit fatigue indicated there was a good chance that Johnson could win. Johnson was dangling in the wind. Why not leave him there and try to extract concessions? Or try to depose him and install a temporary prime minister to enact and oversee a second referendum? The support of not many more pro-European MPs (about 10-20) was required to achieve this.
Just how much Johnson wanted an election should have been a clear warning. If ‘getting Brexit done’ was all that mattered, why didn’t he continue to try to get the Withdrawal Bill through parliament? It had a fair chance of success having got through the first hurdle in the Commons. It was surely because his main aim was always ‘getting Brexit done’ and winning an election. ‘Getting Brexit done’ would not get Brexit done. The real getting Brexit done – the difficult task of negotiating the future UK-EU relationship – could only be achieved by winning an election. (I also suspect that the Conservatives had private polling data showing they had a good chance of winning with their simple Brexit message, media support and far more campaign funding than the opposition parties).
However, both Jo Swinson and Jeremy Corbyn thought they could do well in an election. The Labour leadership thought the 2017 election showed widespread support for the Corbyn project and they could get over the line with one more push. But many Labour voters in 2017 were Remainers who had subsequently become increasingly disillusioned with Corbyn’s reluctant stance on the EU. Analysis of the 2019 election results shows that while undoubtedly many Labour Leave voters (around 700, 000) switched to the Conservatives, more Remain voters (around 1.1 million) deserted Labour to pro-EU parties.
The Liberal Democrats were seduced by strong performances in the local and EU parliament election results in early 2019. But these elections are low turnout, often protest votes, and rarely act as good guides to general election outcomes.
Many leading pro-EU commentators and politicians thought it was a big mistake to support the election. I agree with them. Also a pre-Christmas election seemed a crazy thing for the opposition to support. Labour has far more members and grassroots activists than the Conservatives, but street campaigning and door knocking is much more difficult in the dark and wet weeks of early winter.
That all said, it’s likely that Johnson would have ramped up the ‘people versus parliament’ rhetoric and, with another cliff edge deadline looming (31st January, 2020), Brexit fatigue among the public would have increased. I’m thus not sure a referendum could have been secured or that there would have been a significantly different outcome to an election in 2020.
It’s unlikely that poor election campaigns by the opposition parties were decisive
Did the opposition parties run poor campaigns with confused messages while the Conservatives had a simple headline message ‘get Brexit done’? Undoubtedly plenty of criticism can be fairly directed at the Lib Dems and Labour – at their leaders, their policies and campaign messages.
However, I doubt that poor opposition campaigns were decisive. Like a football match, it’s easy to write to the result – to say the winners did everything right and losers everything wrong. Despite their win, many aspects of the Conservative campaign were poor. Other than their simple headline message the Conservatives had a leader who waffled, blustered and evaded serious scrutiny (as he still does). His media performances were poor. Unfortunately little of this impacted on the public. A significant section of them only wanted to hear a simple message and the majority of the media echoed and amplified that message.
The question then is why the simple message of the Conservatives stuck and many poor aspects of their campaign didn’t matter. ‘Brexit fatigue’ was certainly a factor. Many people, even some who voted Remain, just wanted it done. They had little understanding of many of the difficult issues in Brexit.
But perhaps more important was the sanctity of the 2016 referendum felt by many people. In 2018 and 2019 there remained a strong resistance among the public and in much of the media to the idea of a second referendum. The referendum became to be seen as superior to any other public vote. It was held to be sacrosanct, to challenge it was undemocratic. In street campaigning I did in Bath and several nearby towns from 2017 to 2019 the idea of a second referendum seemed illegitimate to most people except strong Remainers. So, although the People’s Vote campaign made significant strides in 2018 and 2019 and gained support among many MPs, it had probably reached a near impenetrable wall in parliament. Many saw no alternative to break the deadlock other than an election.
Fragmentation of the pro-Remain and pro-second referendum parties was a (possibly the) crucial factor
The fragmentation of the pro-EU and pro-second referendum opposition parties contrasted to the unity of the pro-Brexit parties. As noted many Brexiters began to think that some compromise (the Irish Sea border deal) was the only way of getting their Brexit. The decision by the Brexit Party to back off in the election and leave the field open for the Conservative party was a natural consequence of this. Being a single issue party with little history made that easier.
In contrast, the distinct histories and identities of the Liberal Democrats and Labour meant that an electoral alliance was unlikely. This was exacerbated by the political distance and antagonism between Swinson and Corbyn. Added in to this fragmentary mix is that in the last decade the SNP have supplanted Labour as the main party in Scotland. Remain fragmentation had a big impact on the election result. It also meant that the formation of a temporary pro-referendum coalition prior to the election was unlikely. Unfortunately fragmentation was probably unavoidable.
A better organised Remain campaign probably would not have made a difference
Another possible factor is poor organisation of the Remain and People’s Vote organisations in 2018-19. Divisions within the People’s Vote campaign, particularly between some of its leaders and grassroots groups, led to its collapse in Autumn 2019. Many people emphasised this point at the Grassroots for Europe conference I attended in London on Saturday 25th January 2020.
However, I don’t think this was decisive in losing the election. In 2018 and 2019 it was a great achievement to move a second referendum from a concern of a few avid pro-EU people to a mainstream idea supported by a significant number of MPs. I doubt that better organisation, campaigning and leadership would have broken through the fragmentation of the opposition parties and the widely held unchallengeable status of the 2016 referendum.
I doubt Remainers should have compromised and gone for a soft Brexit
Compromise to the Irish Sea border deal by some leading Brexiters seems to have been a critical factor in getting Brexit done and the Conservative election win. Should Remainers have also compromised and pursued a soft Brexit?
This is a complicated question that deserves much more than a few words here. Varying views have been put forward on twitter and in blogs. But I very much doubt it would have been the right thing to do. A unified and mass campaign for a soft Brexit would not have got off the ground. Activists would not have been inspired by it. The Lib Dems wouldn’t have supported it and Labour would have been divided.
Also how could a soft Brexit have been made to happen? Should pro-EU MPs have supported Theresa May’s deal? But her deal, while softer than Johnson’s, was never a soft Brexit. And the noisy hard Brexiters would have claimed that the referendum result had been betrayed. Theresa May would probably have been ousted by them and they would then have pushed hard against her deal. And opposition parties would have been implicated in any damaging consequences of Brexit.
Would a better organised Remain campaign have made a difference. I doubt it. Could the ‘sacrosanct’ referendum narrative have been challenged more? Possibly. But the Remain/People’s Vote campaign achieved a lot in 2018-19. It is not clear that more could have been done. The idea of a mass campaign getting behind a soft Brexit was a non-starter.
Certainly a much better outcome could have been achieved with electoral cooperation between the main opposition parties and a fairer voting system. These can be campaigned for, but could not have been changed in the last two years.
Overall, I’m not sure Remain could have done much more. The opposition parties shouldn’t have supported the election and should have tried harder to get a referendum. Defeat was not inevitable though the odds were against us.