A Historical Introduction
Winter General Elections are rare and December ones rarer still. The 2019 one is to be on the (Glorious) 12th of December. In NI the Glorious 12th is a reference to the Battle of the Boyne, rather than the start of the grouse shooting season.
The last two December GEs were in 1923 and 1918. The 1918 one was called immediately after the end of WWI, which finished in November. There had been no election for eight years. Interestingly the 1910 election was also held in December.
In WWI as in WWII, there was a grand coalition government, but unlike WWII, there was a change in leader about halfway through, with Lloyd George taking over from Asquith in Dec 1916. The first half of the war had not gone well, Asquith was blamed and Lloyd George got much of the credit for the ultimate victory.
Unlike at the end of WWII, when Churchill famously lost to Atlee in a landslide, Lloyd George cleverly managed to remain as PM and kept the coalition together for another four years. MPs who had backed Lloyd George during the war were issued with coupons, spun as an endorsement of truely patriotic MPs, forming a Liberal-Conservative pact. “Coupon” Conservative and Liberal seats were not contested by the other party. Non-coupon MPs found it very difficult to be elected and Asquith, for example, lost his seat.
The 1922 GE was in November. The coalition was at an end. It was also the first since the breakaway of the Irish Free State. With only pro-Union NI remaining, the number of seats was reduced from 707 to 615 and a Conservative majority seemed guaranteed. In practice, the 73 Sinn Féin MPs elected in 1918 did not sit in Westminster, but during the coalition, this did not alter the balance of power.
The Conservatives indeed won and their leader Bonar Law became PM. Even though the Tories lost 38 seats, they ended up with a comfortable majority of 74 (including 11 NI Unionists who sat with the Conservatives).
Shortly afterwards, Law became seriously ill with throat cancer, resigned in May ’23 and died later that year. He was the shortest-serving PM of the twentieth century (211 days in office). The new PM Stanley Baldwin felt that he needed a new mandate and went to the country, hoping to strengthen his grip on the Tory Party leadership and increase his majority.
The GE proved to be disastrous for the Tories, with the loss of a further 86 seats and the first-ever (minority) Labour Government being formed under Ramsey Mc Donald.
Will history repeat itself?
Johnson has united the Tory party, which was split under May. To achieve this he has abandoned the DUP by breaching their darkest of red lines, a customs border in the Irish Sea. He also expelled 21 MPs from the Tory Party. The other significant change is moving provisions from the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement to the Political Declaration. This allows for a much wider range of final Brexit options including a Canada Dry or even a WTO Brexit.
The PM is in a far worse position than in 1923. As of the 6th Nov., the number of Tory MPs is 298 after 10 of the 21 ousted MPs have had their whip returned. In theory, 326 seats are needed to form a majority but this will be slightly less as Sinn Féin do not take their seats and speakers and deputy speakers do not traditionally vote.
One trivial fact is that Johnson is the only PM since Bonar Law to be born in N. America. New York in Johnson’s case and New Brunswick in Law’s case. Indeed they are the only PMs born outside Britain or Ireland.
Johnson will not be able to count on the DUP and it is very likely some Tory seats will be lost in Scotland to the SNP. Other seats may well be lost to the Lib Dems in the SW, the Shires and elsewhere. Johnson is hoping to make major inroads to Brexit voting Labour heartlands in the Midlands and North.
Labour, of course, may do better than expected and there is also a threat on the Right of the Brexit Party PLC.
In addition to the change to the WA, Johnson is promising an end to austerity, with a major increase in State funding – a very populist agenda. A well thought out Keynesian or MMT strategy is very much to be applauded, but this is extraordinary from the Tories. They have been plugging a small state, austerity, agenda for years and, just when the uncertainty and currency risks are highest move towards expansion.
In this blog, however, I want to look at how well the Johnson Deal is going down in Northern Ireland and possible implications for the GE. Later blogs will look at the wider picture.
The New Northern Ireland Protocol also known as the Frontstop
Details of the new NI protocol have been discussed in Backstops and Broomsticks. Here we look at the popularity or otherwise of the so-called Frontstop. Lucid Talk (LT) has recently (October) conducted a tracker poll. Two of the most interesting questions are: given a binary choice between the Johnson Deal and No-Deal, and the Johnson Deal and Remain, how would you choose?
Given the Frontstop is a considerably worse deal for NI than the previous May deal, in that it adds considerable E-W friction (and possibly some W-E friction), is it far less loved than May’s deal?
LT splits the NI population into three, Unionists, Nationalists and Neutrals. This third group are also called “Unaligned” or “Others”. I will use the term “Significant Others” as they are becoming an increasingly powerful force as signalled by the election of Naomi Long (Alliance) as one of the three NI MEPs.
Johnson Deal vs No Deal
Fig. 1 shows the results of the binary choice of Johnson’s Deal vs No-Deal (click on the images to expand). If the “don’t knows” and non-voters are excluded 62% of the population support Johnson’s deal vs No-Deal. This is interesting because May’s deal had about 60% support. Statistically, there seems very little difference.
However, only 38% of Unionists would chose it over No-Deal. The Unionist position is understandable as their main red line has been no border in the Irish Sea. Unionists worry that NI will become economically a de-facto region of IE.
For the Nationalists, the main red line is no introduction of a hard border on the island of Ireland. For those who made the binary choice, 94% preferred Johnson’s Deal vs No-Deal.
For the “Significant Others” the results, within statistical uncertainty nearly identical to that of the Nationalist community.
Johnson’s Deal vs Remain
Given the choice of Johnson’s deal vs Remain, if don’t knows and no-voters are excluded 72% chose to remain in the EU. Even in the Unionist community Remain is the favoured option.
This is a significant shift. Previous polls put remaining in the EU at c. 60% (the actual Brexit referendum, result was 56%). This shift is almost entirely down to Unionist voters. The penny seems to have finally dropped that Brexit imperils the Union. From a Dublin perspective, this is a “no shit Sherlock” moment. It was clear from the outset that an Irish Sea border was the most likely landing zone.
For the “Significant Others” again the result, within statistical uncertainty is nearly identical to that for the Nationalist community.
Implications for GE2019 in NI
There are many moving parts in NI, but in many respects, it is far simpler than England.
The DUP have failed spectacularly. Major strategic mistakes have been made, both in supporting Brexit in the first place and in not supporting May’s Deal. They have been “thrown under a bus” by the Tories. This is understood by many of the more savvy and better-educated Unionists who lean towards the UUP.
True to form however, they will blame Dublin and Brussels. This is particularly galling from the Dublin perspective as they were repeatedly warned that an Irish Sea border was the most likely outcome if the UK went for a hard Brexit. Like the Brexiters however, they have zero ownership of their own self-inflicted misfortune, and will blame anyone but themselves.
Many of their supporters, particularly at the Loyalist end of the spectrum share many values with Trump supporters in the US, not least an unwavering loyalty.
Initially, the UUP were intending to fight every seat, but they have now agreed not to stand in Nigel Dodd’s seat in N. Belfast. This is widely believed to be because of UDA intimidation. The optics certainly look dreadful, with the UUP looking spineless and weak.
The Anti-Brexit parties, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Greens have all agreed to stand down in certain constituencies to maximise the likelihood of a Remain MP being elected (more details in a later blog).
At this stage, it seems unlikely that Alliance will form electoral pacts. They had an excellent European Parliament election, with Naomi Long being the first MEP to be elected in NI. They will be hoping to capatalise on that momentum.
Lady Sylvia Herman is standing down. This is particularly unfortunate as she was an outstanding MP. Although she was an independent Unionist she was widely admired. Indeed even Sinn Féin had pledged not to run in her constituency, N. Down and urged its supporters to vote for her.
Lady Sylvia was very much on the progressive wing of the UUP but stood down in 2010 after they made an electoral pact with the Conservatives.
North Down is a DUP target seat, but it is likely that the UUP and Alliance will hotly contest the constituency.
In NI this will be a hard-fought election with unpredictable results. The DUP will rely on their fanatically loyal base.
The UUP will hope that the strategic incompetence of the DUP can be exploited and help increase their vote share.
The pro-Remain parties, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and the Greens will run the election as a proxy People’s Vote hoping to capitalise on the increasing anti-Brexit sentiment in NI.
Turnout here is likely to be the highest for years and, just as in the UK, this could be a pivotal election. It is possible that more seats will change hands than at any other election in the history of NI.
Are the “Others” going to prove a significant force on the Glorious 12th? If they vote tactically it could be a very bad night for the DUP. Or could it be a case of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”? It seems almost certain the DUP will lose S. Belfast, but they may very well gain N. Down.