Boris Johnson’s path to victory requires the opposition to be divided. But his rhetoric may unite them

The Prime Minister's inflammatory language may yet revive tactical voting. 

NS

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Boris Johnson made a combative return to parliament last night, rerunning his preferred people vs parliament theme, calling on Jeremy Corbyn to call an election, and railing against MPs, Corbyn, and the bill that has mandated him to seek an extension.

The only new part of the story: the anger he provoked among MPs after dismissing the concerns of Paula Sherriff, a Labour MP who has received credible death threats, about the consequences of his political rhetoric. From inside the Conservative Party, Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, has called on him to think again, as have Stephen Crabb and Jeremy Lefroy from the backbenches, while he’s united essentially the whole of the opposition including most of the whip-less 20 Conservative MPs. 

It exposes a number of problems with Johnson’s plan to fight the next election as a contest between him, the tribune of the people, and those terrible cosmopolitan elites on the other side. The biggest problem, as I wrote about last night, is that it involves using language that motivates extremist and violent behaviour on the political fringe. But Johnson, clearly, reasons that that is someone else’s problem.

But it’s also a problem for him. His path to a majority of any kind, and possibly even his path simply to an election result like the last one, relies on the opposition staying split: on someone who voted for the Liberal Democrats in May, who lives in, say, Preseli Pembrokeshire, or Bishop Auckland, or any other Conservative-Labour marginal you care to name, deciding that their antipathy to Corbyn is big enough that they are willing to put aside their usual concerns about tactical voting and our antiquated electoral system to put a big yellow cross on their ballot paper. 

The evidence of all the polls is that Jo Swinson has already made herself attractive enough that a Labour voter who lives in, say, St Ives, or Bath, or any Conservative-Liberal Democrat marginal you care to name, is willing to put their preference for Labour to one side to vote tactically. That’s a problem for Conservative hopes of a decent majority, but it’s only a disaster if it is matched by an equivalent effect in the Conservative-Labour battlegrounds. 

Most of Corbyn’s inner circle thinks that they can bring about a change in Corbyn’s standing similar to the one he managed in 2017, which will allow them to contain their Liberal Democrat problem geographically. It’s too soon to say whether or not they’re right, but we’ve also seen a way that the same dynamic could happen in a different direction: it won’t matter if Corbyn continues to repel those voters if Boris Johnson makes himself such a frightening prospect that they are willing to vote Corbyn to stop Johnson. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.