Oct 31, 2019 - Politics & Policy

U.K. election: Boris Johnson's path to victory resembles Trump's in 2016

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

LONDON — Thursday was supposed to be Brexit Day — deal or no deal, "do or die" — but instead it’s the dawn of an election campaign that could determine whether Brexit happens at all, not to mention who’ll be leading the U.K. for the next five years.

The big picture: Still just three months in as prime minister, Boris Johnson is gambling everything for a parliamentary majority that will allow him to, per his constant refrain, “get Brexit done.” As he studies the electoral map, Johnson might see a path to victory that President Trump would recognize.

Will Tanner, director of the center-right Onward think tank, made an addition to the British political lexicon this week: “Workington Man.”

  • Workington Man voted for Brexit. He has a high school education, is no fan of immigration or globalization, and worries that societal values are slipping away.
  • He’s probably voted Labour all his life, as his parents did before him. But according to Onward's polling, he’s willing to give Johnson a shot.
  • Workington, a former steel town in the northwest of England, is exactly the type of seat Johnson needs to flip.
  • While Workington is not Wisconsin, Tanner tells Axios the "attitudes" of the swing voters targeted by both leaders are largely the same.

James Johnson, Theresa May's former pollster, tells Axios the "million dollar question" is whether Johnson can convince enough people who voted for Brexit, but never for the Tories, to back the Conservatives in December.

  • "The electorate is at its most volatile in history," he says. The prime minister's failure to deliver Brexit by tonight's deadline could actually help him capitalize.
  • Voters might prefer Labour's approach to social services, he says, but many find Johnson's argument that a Labour win will indefinitely prolong the Brexit process persuasive.
  • “When I was doing polling [in Downing Street] right up through July, the ‘get Brexit done to move on to other issues’ line was by far the most successful we tested," he says.

The buzz

I spoke to a dozen or so close observers of this election this week — parliamentary staffers, consultants, political journalists — and three things came up in just about every conversation.

1. 2017

  • Theresa May called a snap election that year with a polling lead even more formidable than Johnson's, convinced she could increase her majority and, yes, "get Brexit done."
  • She lost the majority, helping create the Brexit deadlock that has paralyzed Parliament since.
  • Johnson is widely considered a better salesman, particularly in a Brexit-focused election as he led the 2016 Leave campaign. Nonetheless, the ghost of 2017 looms large.

2. The Liberal Democrats

  • Currently polling at around 18% and running on a fiercely anti-Brexit platform, they're splitting the "Remain" vote and should win a string of seats — while potentially tipping others to the Conservatives.

3. Nigel Farage's Brexit Party

  • Farage, a pro-Brexit provocateur, could play the ultimate spoiler for Johnson by outflanking Conservative candidates on that issue.
  • The British papers were peppered with speculation Thursday that Farage would make peace with Johnson and target a smaller number of seats.
  • Reach by Axios, Farage said he had "nothing to say" until a press conference tomorrow morning.

But, but, but: Farage did have time for another American caller tonight, on his LBC radio program.

  • In a 27-minute chat, President Trump encouraged him to "get together" with Johnson to deliver a Brexiteer victory. Go deeper.

By the numbers

Voting intention (FT poll tracker):

  • Conservative (37%)
  • Labour (25%)
  • Liberal Democrats (18%)
  • Brexit Party (10%)
  • Regional parties (5%)
  • Green Party (4%)

How those favoring each party voted in the 2016 referendum (Pew):

  • Conservative (60% Leave, 29% Remain)
  • Labour (20% Leave, 53% Remain)
  • Lib Dem (12% Leave, 70% Remain)
  • Some respondents didn’t vote in 2016 or declined to answer.

Likelihood of outcomes (Electoral Calculus):

  • Conservative majority (52%)
  • Labour majority (11%)
  • No majority (37%).

What to watch: Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP) all favor a second referendum. They could potentially join together on that platform in the event of a hung Parliament.

  • But the SNP, which looks set to dominate Remain-voting Scotland, would likely set its price in joining such a coalition on yet another referendum — for Scottish independence.

Go deeper

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