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29 September 2019updated 30 Sep 2019 7:54am

Would extending the Brexit date hurt the Tories? I don’t buy it

Almost everyone thinks that asking for an extension will damage Boris Johnson. But Conservative voters may take a more favourable view.   

By Stephen Bush

There’s a near-universal consensus that, whatever happens, politics will look very different on 1 November than it does today: either we will have had a no-deal Brexit or Boris Johnson will have been forced to ask for an extension. 

The argument for the former is open and shut: one way or another, the fact of us having left will change the political situation, however disruptive or non-disruptive the first few days of that process turn out to be. But as to the latter? A number of Conservative MPs just don’t buy that it will be a worldshaking event, and I’m inclined to agree. In the spirit that you should always write your thinking down, so you can’t wriggle out of it later, here’s why.

Firstly, I still essentially assume that the average voter is a lot more fairminded than political partisans would like. We can see from all the polls that there has been no change in the level of Labour support – whether in the Kantar-YouGov-Ipsos-Opinium cluster of polls that show a very big Tory lead, or in the ComRes-Survation-Deltapoll cluster that show a very small Tory lead – as a result of the repeated refrain that Jeremy Corbyn is avoiding an election because he is “frightened” of the outcome.

But anyone with half a brain can see, hear, or read the explicit argument being made by Corbyn and the Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, that they don’t trust that going for an election before an extension has been secured will allow a no-deal Brexit by the back door. They might think that Downing Street is bluffing when it briefs that it would force a no-deal through during an election, but they can completely see the logic of the move. The people who either genuinely believe, or are willing to pretend, that Corbyn’s decision is because he fears an election do so because they really dislike Corbyn and/or the Labour Party, or really like the Conservative Party and/or Boris Johnson. But there are no voters who Labour might ever conceivably win who think that way.

That the polls haven’t moved despite the fact that the majority of the press haven’t given Corbyn or Swinson anything like a fair hearing on this is a good example of how a favourable media backdrop is an advantage – but there is an upper limit on what you can achieve with it in a short time.

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Similarly, I just don’t buy that anyone who looks at a situation where Boris Johnson has tried and failed to prorogue parliament, has repeatedly tried to get an election out of the way before 31 October, and in general has done almost everything to avoid an extension, will conclude on 1 November that Johnson’s request for an extension is a betrayal or a sign that his Brexit bona fides aren’t all that.  

But didn’t Theresa May experience a backlash for calling for an extension? Yes, but the situation was completely different: May visibly asked for more than she needed to, in a situation where the legislation seeking an extension had been watered down to the point where if she had wanted to, she would have had the power to take us out on 29 March. That dynamic will not apply on 31 October.

The people who disapprove of any extension will be those who already dislike Boris Johnson and/or the Conservatives, or who really like any or all of his opponents. And Johnson, unlike Corbyn, has a large and sympathetic media ecosystem behind him. I simply don’t buy that an extension request will be a significant event in the life of the Conservatives or the country.

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