November 01, 2019

Good evening from London and welcome to a special U.K. election edition of Axios World. We've got 1,500 words (5 minutes) on Boris, Brexit and more.

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1 big thing: Boris' Trump-like path to victory

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Today 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 a contribution 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 since 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 today that Farage would make peace with Johnson and target a smaller number of seats.

What to watch: I called him today to find out. He told me he had "nothing to say" until a press conference tomorrow morning.

2. "Donald from Washington" on the line

Trump and Farage in Mississippi. Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

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.

What he's saying: "I know that you and him will end up doing something that could be terrific. If you and he get together, it's an unstoppable force. And [Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn would be so bad for your country," Trump said.

  • Trump seemed to agree with Farage's position that the Brexit deal Johnson struck with the EU is too soft, saying it could make a U.S.-U.K. trade deal difficult.
  • He said he was “disappointed” that Brexit had been delayed again and added that other EU countries, including Italy, would be better off outside the bloc.
  • But Trump said repeatedly that Johnson is the "exact leader" the U.K. needs. (Farage was less enthusiastic).
"Boris and I have a great friendship. When he was running they were saying, 'He's the Trump, he's the Trump.' We have a lot of the same things going, I guess."
— Trump

The latest: Corbyn has already accused Trump of "trying to interfere in Britain's election to get his friend Boris Johnson elected," a potentially potent line of attack given Trump's unpopularity in the U.K.

3. By the numbers: Will Boris make it?

Stuck in the middle, at the London Olympics.

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.

4. Politics in the Brexit Age

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A stream of senior Conservative members, some who’ve held top Cabinet jobs, have announced this week that they’re stepping aside.

Nearly all have one thing in common: They voted against Brexit in 2016.

  • On the one hand: “We are the Brexit Party now,” declared Iain Duncan Smith, the party's euroskeptic former leader. “Every candidate standing will accept that our job and duty first and foremost is to deliver Brexit.”
  • On the other: “Boris may get back some Brexiteer Tory and Labour voters but he is losing the liberal Conservatives,” warned Keith Simpson, one of those stepping down. He said Johnson was demonstrating “how not to get a majority.”

It's not just about Brexit. One of the most senior MPs to exit, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan, cited the “abuse” she and her family had faced.

  • She’s one of many senior politicians to have warned about the rising toxicity of British politics, particularly for women.
  • Johnson has been blamed in part for his bellicose rhetoric about “surrender” and "betrayal."
  • He dismissed such accusations as "humbug," but a staffer for a Conservative member told me this week that the vitriol is wearing on many in Westminster. "Every member's gotten death threats," the staffer said.

5. Road ahead: The view from the City

My morning commute this week. Photo: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

The latest Brexit extension takes the prospect of an economically calamitous "no deal" Brexit off the table until Jan. 31, but businesses remain in a state of very expensive limbo.

Why it matters: "It is hugely costly, in terms of money but also in terms of effort and energy. So much has been put into this process and into emergency 'no deal' planning that could have been used in other areas," says Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation.

  • While warnings of a "Brexit recession" following the referendum haven't come to fruition, the impact has already been felt — and Brexit hasn't actually happened yet.
  • "The real implications will play out over time," says McGuinness, whose organization represents London’s powerful financial services sector. "But we’ve seen investments slow down, we’ve seen people put decisions on hold, and we hear about people having problems recruiting."

What to watch: “The big worry I have is we have an inconclusive election, and where does that take us? We can’t just keep going on this treadmill where no progress is made.”

  • Brexit will also not be over when it's over — the trading relationship between the U.K. and EU must still be negotiated, and more deadlines loom in 2020 and beyond.
  • McGuinness points out that Switzerland, which isn't an EU member, has been in a "constant state of negotiation" with the bloc for years.

The bottom line: McGuinness is confident London will remain a global financial center after Brexit. But she worries that the economic pain that comes along with it will make it even harder to "put back together this rather fractured society."

6. Political obituary: John Bercow, Speaker (2009–2019)

Bercow will go down in effigy. History too, no doubt. Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Best known in the U.S. for bellowing "order, order" at rowdy MPs, Speaker John Bercow presided over the House of Commons for the final time today.

  • Bercow clashed with Conservatives for impeding their Brexit plans, and Boris Johnson praised and needled him in equal measure during farewell remarks yesterday.
  • "Ten years ago MPs were the subject of public scorn and the office of Commons Speaker was held in contempt," the Times of London writes, somewhat unkindly, of Bercow's legacy. "[I]t is legitimate to question what has really changed."

One thing that changed under Bercow was Parliamentary vocabulary. He unleashed dozens of words not employed by any previous speaker for at least a century, according to a BBC tally.

  • Some of his favorites: "chuntering," "mellifluous" and "beetled."

Then, of course, there's the word with which he'll always be associated.

  • Bercow shouted "order" at least 14,000 times as speaker. Those days are over, but surely he'll be taking the catchphrase with him on the lecture circuit.

7. Stories we're watching

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Protests around the world aimed at governments
  2. Iraqi prime minister to resign after weeks of deadly protests
  3. ISIS confirms Baghdadi’s death, announces new leader
  4. Expert Voices: Indonesia's Jokowi picks growth over reform
  5. Trump taps North Korea envoy as deputy sec. of state
  6. House recognizes Armenian genocide, backs Turkey sanctions
  7. Nepali climber summits world's 14 tallest mountains


"I've been watching her interviews, I've seen it, and she's been taking it very personally. I guess you've got to be a little bit different than that."
— Trump on Meghan Markle, who has spoken about being hurt by negative press coverage