By any conventional measure, Boris Johnson has made a complete mess of his first few months as Prime Minister. The government has lost every vote in the Commons since he became leader and then there was the Supreme Court ruling too. After that last fiasco even Nigel Farage said that he expected Boris Johnso to return to Parliament and offer his resignation. But instead the government keeps chugging along, though hamstrung by a parliament in which the government doesn’t command a majority. What is more, he may be winning the longer strategic game.
The strategy in Number 10 is transparently clear. Boris Johnson will not get his way by seeking cooperation with Labour MPs or even those averse to his tactic inside the Conservative Party. The only way he can survive is by winning a general election when a general election is eventually called, but for him to win that election he must ensure that he carries the greatest share of the Leave vote with him. It explains the combative style adopted by the Prime Minister in the Commons towards Labour MPs and the twenty-one former Conservative who had their whips removed. There is no consensual way forward to be found on Brexit in Parliament. One way or the other it will have to come back to the people. When it does, he intends to be ready to win.
The Conservative Party’s voter base has adjusted significantly since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and they are now less vulnerable to the vicissitudes of political circumstance. Polling suggest that the prorogation of Parliament had a slight negative impact on support for the Conservative party but now Boris Johnson is experiencing a lead in the polls equal to that which he did when he first came into office. On the higher end of those predictions, the last Guardian/Observer poll put the Conservatives fifteen points in the lead with thirty-eight percent of the vote. Meanwhile, YouGov have been regularly showing leads of around ten points.
The worry in Number 10 will be that this lead might not be sustainable were Boris Johnson to ask for an extension to Article 50 as is require by the Benn Act. Data by polling company PublicFirst will perhaps add to this concern. Whatever the reason is, thirty six percent of people seem to believe that the UK will leave the EU on the 31st of October. The number is higher among Conservative voters, at forty-seven percent, Leave voters, at forty-nine percent, and Brexit Party voters, at fifty-five percent.
This why the defeats in Parliament and the Supreme Court were rather useful for Boris Johnson. Like a modern Coriolanus, the Prime Minister must go about the citizens asking for their ‘voices’ and displaying his war wounds for their pleasure. The hope will be that those defeats have bought him enough credit to see him through an extension and into a general election. Whatever happens, we can be sure that this government will not go quietly into an extension; we will all see exactly how this plays out in the next twelve days.