Why the Tories are cruising toward a big win in Britain
The polling is clear. Over the more than three years since they voted to leave the European Union, British voters have come to regret their choice. Polls consistently show a several-point margin in favor of Remain, only one in three voters will endorse the proposition that getting Brexit over with is better than further delay, and two thirds believe that a no-deal Brexit should require another referendum.
So why are Boris Johnson's Tories, running on a clearer stance for Brexit than ever before, currently projected to win a decisive victory in the December election?
The simplest answer is: the opposition is divided. But that answer obscures more than it reveals, because it presumes that the question of Brexit is as dominant among the opposition as it is among the Tories. And the division of the opposition itself proves that this is not the case. On the contrary: Brexit is a truly existential question for a far larger fraction of Leave voters than it is of Remain voters, and that has had and continues to have material electoral consequences.
Consider the largest opposition party. Labour under Jeremy Corbin has trended in an overwhelmingly left-wing direction, not only on economic matters but also on immigration and foreign policy. A "no enemies on the left" approach has even seen extremist illiberal and anti-Semitic elements gain a greater foothold within the party. But on Brexit, Corbyn has taken a somewhat ambiguous stance, reflecting the fact that while a majority of Labourites voted Remain, a not insignificant number had always been skeptical of an economic arrangement that gave financial interests greater influence at both the national and European levels of government.
That combination of stridency and straddle hasn't played well in electoral terms, and has opened space for two other parties to establish themselves as alternatives: the Liberal Democrats, a longstanding centrist liberal party that has positioned itself as the unequivocal party of Remain, and the Brexit Party, a newly-minted political faction founded by Nigel Farage, the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party. At one point this past summer, both parties looked capable of surpassing the Tories, and possibly Labour as well.
Since Boris Johnson took the premiership, though, the picture has changed dramatically. The Brexit party has fallen back to 10-12 percent in the polls, while the Tories have surged to the mid-to-high 30s. Moreover, Farage has intimated that he might cooperate with the Tories strategically, targeting constituencies where left-wing Leave voters are concentrated to pull them away from Labour, while staying away from seats that would be contested between the Remain-oriented Liberal Democrats and the Leave-oriented Tories.
How could such a strategy work if Brexit is only getting less-popular with time? The answer comes down to intensity and cohesion.
If Tory Remain voters — of which there were many — cared more about stopping Brexit than they did about the fate of their party, they would defect to the Liberal Democrats, badly damaging the Tories' chances of winning a majority. Similarly, if Labour Remain voters felt that Brexit was the most important issue, they would either have pushed Corbyn to a more decisive Remain stance, or would be working strategically with the Liberal Democrats in the way that the Brexit Party may work with the Tories. And the Liberal Democrats would be doing the same.
But while Brexit may be a politically-defining event for the liberal center, for the left this is their first chance at power since the 1970s — not something to be traded away lightly for the sake of free trade with Germany or even stability in Ireland. Even for liberal centrists, the choice between Corbyn and Johnson may be a tough one. For the right, meanwhile, the party as a whole seems to have come to realize that while the hard Leave voters are a minority in the country, they hold the balance of power within the Tory coalition. If they are not given the wheel, the coach isn't going anywhere.
Now they have the wheel, and a Leave coalition looks likely to triumph decisively, in spite of all regrets.
What happens then? The opposition could continue to come up with explanations for why the result doesn't truly reflect the will of the people — blaming the electoral system, for instance (though in current polling the Tory-plus-Brexit coalition outpolls Labour-plus-Lib-Dems by an average of five points, suggesting even proportional representation would give victory to the Brexiteers). But they would be wiser to focus on the future. No longer dependent on the votes of Irish Unionists, nor needing to cater to the concerns of the Scottish Nationalists, a big Tory majority could govern from the center of England rather than Britain.
The biggest post-Brexit challenge may not be how to get Britain back into Europe, but how to hold Britain itself together.
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