‘If the Brexit Party is strong enough to help unseat Johnson in Uxbridge, then it will do the same to other Tories, meaning a hung Parliament’
Everyone knew it would be close. The correspondents crowded into Brunel University’s indoor athletics centre had been using tell-tale phrases such as “long faces among the Tories”. But at 2.38am, in the words of Lloyd White, the returning officer for Uxbridge South and Ruislip, the biggest upset in British political history became a fact.
“Johnson, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel, Conservative and Unionist Party Candidate, 18,446”—the sitting MP had polled nearly 5,000 votes fewer than in 2017. A few seconds later came the deliverer of nemesis. “Page, Nicola Jill, Brexit Party, 6,331”. The businesswoman and former Tory councillor had not come close to winning the seat. But she had done enough to ensure that Johnson, who entered the election with the smallest constituency majority of any prime minister since 1924, had lost it.
How likely is this? Talk to Brexit Party insiders (see box on next page) and the threat is clear: they will back the prime minister only as long as he is the best route to the “clean break Brexit” they want. But if Johnson so much as hints that he is ready to accommodate Remainers by, in Brexiters’ eyes, kow-towing to the EU, they will unleash Nikki Page (pictured opposite) on him. The personal humiliation he could suffer in Uxbridge would be replicated on swathes of his party across the country.
No sitting prime minister has ever lost his seat. But such a defeat causes a political crisis, not a constitutional one. The rules are clear; the defeated candidate stays prime minister and tries to return to Parliament in a by-election. Vernon Bogdanor, Britain’s constitutional sage (who once taught David Cameron at Oxford) notes a precedent. In October 1964, Patrick Gordon Walker, Harold Wilson’s choice as Foreign Secretary, lost his Smethwick seat. He stayed in his post while a veteran Labour MP was sent to the Lords to open the supposedly safe seat of Leyton—which Gordon Walker then lost. Voters do not like their constituency being used as a recycling bin.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, prime ministerial nemesis in Uxbridge would cause mayhem. Finding a new seat for Johnson would take weeks, postponing the opening of Parliament and Queen’s Speech. The uncertainty would be crippling. If he failed to win the by-election he would resign; his deputy, or some other figure not running in the Conservative Party leadership election, would preside at cabinet until a successor was elected, compounding the confusion.
Moreover, if the Brexit Party is strong enough to help unseat Johnson in Uxbridge, then it will do the same to other Tories, meaning, almost inevitably, a hung Parliament. Again, the rules are clear. Even out of Parliament and as leader of a minority party, Johnson remains prime minister and tries to form a government, negotiating either a formal coalition, or a confidence and supply agreement. That is then tested in the vote on the Address—the response to the Queen’s Speech. This chain of events promise a political crisis that would make the events of August and September this year seem tame.
But could it actually happen? Historically, Uxbridge is a safe Conservative seat. Bogdanor, who grew up there, notes that it remained Tory even during the Labour landslides of 1997 and 2001. Since then, the addition of South Ruislip has strengthened the Tory vote. At the last election, Johnson polled 50.8 per cent, with a 5,034 majority over Labour on 40 per cent. Electoral Calculus, a consultancy, puts the probability of Johnson holding the seat at 66 per cent. That assumes, however, that Remain parties do not unite. A 10 per cent vote for the Brexit Party candidate would take Johnson’s vote share down to 40 per cent, meaning an anti-Brexit opposition candidate, backed by Labour, Lib Dems and Greens, could squeak ahead.
A strong Brexit Party challenge is easy to imagine. Though no candidate has been formally chosen, Page, who spent her early childhood in the constituency, is the leading contender. She is a formidable campaigner. Her modelling career (catwalk and couturiers) was a certain number of years ago, but bequeathed a poise and discipline that contrasts with Johnson’s mannered, bumbling style. A no-nonsense history, growing up in a semi in the south of the constituency and leaving school at 16, contrasts with the prime minister’s gilded background. Her experience in local government (running housing in the City of Westminster) and in Brussels (recruiting for the European Commission), and in businesses large and small, seem tailor-made for the role.
At a recent Saturday morning campaign event outside Uxbridge Station she and a crowd of Brexit Party luminaries and local supporters engaged a mostly appreciative audience. Part of Johnson’s problem is that he is seen as a neglectful MP. Passers-by complained that he is rarely seen and does not answer letters; an easy problem to fix for a man of his means, but which also dogged him in his previous constituency, Henley. Another difficulty is public impatience, both with the convoluted Brexit process, and over the complexity of life in general. Page cuts through hard on this. She is big on common sense, and the need for outsiders in politics. The political class, she says, is tied up in semantics. “Ordinary people don’t do semantics.” The seat voted 58 per cent to Leave in the 2016 referendum, providing fertile ground. “Finally, someone’s talking sense,” snapped a matronly figure hurrying past to catch a train.
Uxbridge presents Johnson with other problems, not least its shifting make-up. Robert Ford, a politics professor at the University of Manchester, says the seat “is chock full of demographic groups, [such as] graduates and ethnic minorities, that have been moving against the Conservatives for the past decade—so regardless of Brexit it would be relatively at risk”. It is one of only a handful of seats with an electorate that is below 70 per cent white and still Tory. The Leave vote has shifted back to Remain, with only 49.7 per cent backing Leave in a poll last year—a slightly bigger change than the national average.
Outside analysts agree that if Johnson disappoints Nigel Farage, he could face a dangerous challenge. “At the moment Boris has done well getting votes back from the Brexit party,” says Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus. “If that stops working, he’s in real trouble.” The prime minister’s freedom of action, in short, is constrained not only by self-imposed red lines, the EU’s failure to crumble, and the convulsions within his party, but also by his personal political future. Nikki Page’s elegant stilettos hover over Uxbridge—and his neck.
But the biggest question is not the solidity of Johnson’s vote, but how it fractures. The seemingly obvious beneficiary is the Labour candidate, Ali Milani, a local councillor. But the 24-year-old Corbynite is battling to overcome controversy about unpleasant anti-Semitic remarks he made in his teens, including (to a Jew) “Israel is a land built on ethnic cleansing and colonialism. Oppression is something your people should know about”. He has also implied that Jews are stingy, and said that Israel has “no right to exist”. Milani has lately disavowed these and other comments, and appears to be under strict control by Labour Party minders (he declined to speak to me about his views). But it is hard to imagine him attracting the broad range of moderate Remain voters needed to beat Johnson.
A potentially more attractive candidate is Liz Evenden-Kenyon from the Lib Dems. A polyglot academic (whose talents include reading Old French and koine Greek), she works at Oxford University and at Brunel (though she did not teach Milani, who studied there). Sitting in her unofficial campaign headquarters, a coffee shop next to the station, she says her approach is “clear on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit”. Her academic speciality is hate speech; she worries about the polarising nature of the Brexit debate. The Lib Dems mood is more optimistic than their skinny 3.9 per cent vote in 2017 would suggest. Their 20 per cent 2010 vote put them within a whisker of second place.
The party’s best hope is for Labour’s Milani to blow up during the election, but #libdemliz (she campaigns a lot on social media) is a long shot, for now. Given the importance of the seat, it is possible that outsiders would broker a deal whereby both candi-dates would stand down in favour of a non-party challenger to Mr Johnson. But if the Remain camp were well-organised enough to do that, it would be able to do much else besides. Not least in Islington North.
At first sight the leader of the opposition can comfort himself on being less exposed than his Conservative counterpart.
Islington North is one of the safest Labour seats in the country. Jeremy Corbyn polled a stonking 73 per cent of the vote in 2017, and sits on a majority of 33,215. But that was at the probably unrepeatable peak of his personal popularity. Labour shilly-shallying on Brexit, the Lib Dem surge and his own patchy performance have changed that.
Electoral Calculus predicts that he will slump to 44 per cent, with the Lib Dems at 27.5, Conservatives at 15.5, Greens at 8 and Brexit 3.2. On that basis, notes Baxter, Corbyn is “not impregnable”. Two things would have to happen to end Corbyn’s 36-year reign in the seat. One is a united Remain alliance scooping up all the Green and Lib Dem votes, plus moderate Tories and anti-Corbyn Labourites. This is not wholly unthinkable given the constituency’s overwhelming (78 per cent) support for Remain and the Labour leader’s lacklustre stance on Brexit. Any challenger would also have to attract mainstream Tories, who might simply enjoy the prospect of the Labour leader’s defeat.
Such a prospect is indeed unlikely, but not impossible. Though the constituency’s Green voters would probably not support a Lib Dem, the reverse could work. Caroline Russell, an impressive Green who is the only opposition councillor in solidly Labour Islington, has been mentioned as a potential unity candidate. (In return, the Greens would back a Lib Dem contender against Emily Thornberry, the Labour frontbencher and MP for Islington South.) The likeliest outcome is that Corbyn survives the pincermovement of the Brexit Party and the Remainers. But his allies may not be so lucky.
On the campaign trail with the Brexit Party
Spend a few minutes in the company of Brexit Party activists, and it is hard not to be intoxicated with their enthusiasm. Politics is stale; politicians are discredited; we need new approaches; fairness, common sense and practical solutions; down with vested interests; make democracy work again.
One prospective candidate says, in all seriousness: “We need to get the politics out of politics”. Much of it has the feel of the Social Democratic Party in the heady days of the early 1980s (albeit with a diametrically opposite view of the EU). The Islamophobia and saloon-bar sexism of UKIP, the previous standard-bearer for anti-EU sentiment, was not in evidence. An activist who voiced eccentric views on Jews, Hitler, Russia and NATO was firmly told off. Alongside Nikki Page in Uxbridge was a slice of British life that would be a welcome addition to any political party, ranging from cosmopolitan and posh to unpretentious and plain-spoken. Questions about funding and party democracy (or rather lack of it) are brushed aside. That is old politics.
The Brexit message has its limits. A hotly contested local issue in Uxbridge is the expansion of Heathrow—a mainstay of the local economy, and a curse when it comes to noise and air pollution. Johnson has reneged on his promise to lie down in front of the bulldozers. So what is the Brexit Party’s position? “It’s complicated” comes the answer. International cooperation is good. But only on British terms. What happens if you have to compromise? Or disagree? There is even less enthusiasm for the question of what Brexit Party MPs would do in a hung parliament. A coalition with one of the hated old parties? And on what terms? Politics may be not quite as simple as the newcomers assume.
The underlying problem is that the party has not made up its mind whether it is a mere ginger group, existing to push the Conservative Party towards a no deal (“clean break” is the phrase they prefer) Brexit, or whether it aims, SDP-style, to “break the mould” of British politics. It has already promised to give the most stalwart Tory Leavers a clear run, and it may end up targeting only hard-core anti-Brexit MPs, chiefly moderate Labour figures in working-class seats in the North. The question, for Britain as well as Uxbridge, is what determines whether it mounts a more ambitious challenge.
Additional reporting by Samuel Johnston