Will Boris Johnson be able to make an election all about Brexit?
Politics Explained: If Britain does go to the polls, the PM will find controlling the narrative no easy task, says Ashley Cowburn
Rather than cabinet ministers setting out their departmental priorities for the coming year, hammered home in every carefully crafted speech will be the government’s commitment to deliver Brexit by Halloween, “do or die”.
The three-day gathering of the party faithful in Manchester will be a rally for Brexit and a likely taste of how the Conservatives intend to fight any general election campaign that may follow. Given Labour’s recent equivocating on the issue, it is the battleground on which Johnson will want to tackle Jeremy Corbyn.
While the Tory leader and his new team of advisers will have large amount of control over the messaging from the confines of the conference hall next month, controlling the narrative during a general election will be no easy task.
Many had predicted Brexit would dominate the 2017 general election. Theresa May must have believed this when she made the surprise announcement to call an early vote. Her seven-minute speech outside No 10 explaining her “reluctant” decision was dominated by Brexit. There was no reference to her domestic policy agenda.
While the intricacies of Brexit and constitutional battles occupy minds in Westminster on a daily basis, domestic issues could feasibly take centre-stage during an election campaign this autumn. Labour is likely to use every opportunity to shift the focus to Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity message.
According to a recent Ipsos Mori poll, Brexit is undoubtedly the public’s greatest concern – 60 per cent mentioned it as either one of the biggest issues, or the single biggest worry.
But the NHS is the second greatest concern for the British public, closely followed by crime, education and the environment. Johnson’s new administration is well aware of this. This is why – despite the PM’s insistence that he does not want a general election – Downing Street has spent the entire week extolling the virtues of Britain’s health service. The No 10 grid for the coming week is expected to focus on crime.
Of course, given the October deadline for Brexit, if any election is called in the coming months, the UK’s exit from the EU will inevitable be the central issue.
But this will not be a repeat of the European elections in May where many viewed it as a proxy referendum. In general elections, issues such as the NHS, tuition fees, housing, crime, the economy and the environment could easily dominate the airwaves. However much Johnson may want to frame the election as “parliament versus the people” and his mission to deliver Brexit, it is not entirely in his power to do so.