The next general election will be the most pivotal in post-war British history. It will determine not merely traditional priorities, such as the level of public spending and taxation, but whether the UK leaves the European Union. Boris Johnson could become either the shortest-lived occupant of No 10 or the prime minister who ends Britain’s 44-year engagement with the European project.
Mr Johnson’s repeated vow to leave the EU with no agreement if necessary further raises the stakes. A no-deal Brexit would threaten food, fuel and medicine supplies, likely push the economy into recession and permanently damage the UK’s international standing. Peace in Northern Ireland – one of the greatest achievements of Anglo-Irish diplomacy – would be newly imperiled. And far from settling the European question, a no-deal Brexit would force the UK to negotiate a new agreement from a position of maximum weakness.
At no election in recent history have the British people been presented with a more extreme prospectus. Mr Johnson is transforming the Conservative Party, once admired for its pragmatism and moderation, into a narrow sect. In spite of his own serial disloyalty, 21 Conservative MPs, including two former chancellors, lost the Tory whip for having the temerity to vote against a no-deal Brexit. The conservative mind, as our recent series has warned, is closing.
Mr Johnson, who became prime minister with the support of just 92,153 Conservative Party members, representing 0.14 per cent of the UK population, is right to seek a general election. At present he has no mandate for a no-deal Brexit. Indeed, during the 2016 EU referendum campaign, Mr Johnson repeatedly boasted that the UK would prevail in negotiations. “There is no plan for no deal because we are going to get a great deal,” he boasted as foreign secretary in July 2017.
Faced with the threat of a no-deal Brexit, opposition parties have rightly prioritised the passage of legislation blocking this outcome. But once the bill has been enshrined in law, they should accept Mr Johnson’s offer of an election.
In advance of the contest, it is crucial that all citizens – the young most of all – register to vote. Young people’s futures will be profoundly shaped by the UK’s eventual decision to leave or remain in the EU. At the last general election, despite a rise in youth turnout, 18-24-year-olds still voted in significantly lower numbers than older age groups.
It was the elderly who drove the Leave vote in 2016. Two-thirds of over-65s voted against EU membership, while three-quarters of 18-24-year-olds voted for it. Over the following three years, the Brexiteers’ promises have been exposed as fraudulent. The Leave campaign vowed to end free movement, retain the economic benefits of EU membership, withdraw the UK from the customs union and avoid a hard Irish border – aims that were inherently irreconcilable.
It is not only in respect of Brexit that the young have been disregarded. In coalition with the Liberal Democrats from May 2010, the Conservatives tripled university tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000, abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance (a payment of up to £30 a week for 16- to 18-year-olds living in low-income households) and capped working-age benefit increases at 1 per cent from 2013 (benefits were frozen altogether from 2016). Rather than investing in affordable housing for the young, the Conservatives have preferred to enrich property owners through wasteful schemes such as Help to Buy.
But more than any of these, it is the risk of a calamitous Brexit that most threatens the young. They would lose the unrestricted freedom to live and work in 27 other European countries and the automatic economic and social benefits that flow from EU membership. Britain would become a less welcoming and more isolationist country, one alienated from its natural allies and a supplicant of Donald Trump’s America. If the young wish to avert this baleful fate, they must use the election to take back control.