What if the Tories lose an Autumn 2022 General Election?

The temptation for Liz Truss to call a General Election soon after becoming Tory leader might be too much to resist. A shiny new leader might enable them to win. But I’m wondering about the other side: might they be planning to lose? In an ideal world they’d have done that before Boris Johnson’s position became completely untenable, but there’s a narrow window in which Truss might be able to lead per party to defeat and survive as leader by blaming her predecessor.

We need to think about this because it would inform our campaign and shape some difficult decisions afterwards.

Why might the Tories want to lose an election?

The economic prospects are grim. Everywhere there’s the long shadow of Covid, the war in Ukraine, inflation going up and growth going down. For the UK that’s made worse by the self-inflicted damage of Brexit. Over the summer we’ve seen some strikes, and we’re bound to see more as people seek pay rises to keep pace with inflation.

If Labour come to power early in the autumn it would be possible – though unjustified and unfair – for the Tories to talk about their “economic mis-management”, make parallels with the “winter of discontent” and look forward to returning to power.

Economic reality means it’s almost inevitable that the UK will need to seek access to the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union. Keir Starmer is still planning to “make Brexit work”. The Tories might well be glad to see Labour rather than them rouse the ire of Brexiteers by making a U-turn.

By 2024, Covid will be far enough in the past to mean the Tories can’t blame it for the self-inflicted economic harm caused by Brexit and should expect to face the wrath of the electorate for “getting Brexit done”. They’ll deserve a hammering. But now? A hung parliament, or a slim Labour majority (making them vulnerable to their left wing extreme) would be a gift for the Tories, and enable them to do real harm to Labour, and Liberal Democrats if we support them.

The problem of a hung parliament

Liberal Democrats tend to do best when Labour are electable, so “middle England” can’t be frightened into voting Conservative for fear of a Labour.

Liberal Democrats and Labour will both be taking seats from the Tories.

With the SNP having taken many seats in Scotland from Labour, it’s now much harder for Labour to achieve a majority.

Instinctively Liberal Democrats are likely to follow Churchill’s dictum – that an MP’s duty is to the good of the country, then of their constituents, then of their party. Instinctively we’d support Labour in order to enable stable government – while hoping to moderate their far left.

But the debacle over tuition fees would be a storm in a teacup by comparison with the betrayal many Liberal Democrats and Liberal Democrat voters would feel if Liberal Democrats supported a government with a promise to “make Brexit work”.

The innocent response is that the more MPs we have, the easier it would be to apply pressure.  How do we get there?

What are the campaign promises we’d need to make to both be faithful to our belief that rejoining the EU is very much in the national interest, and enable us to support Labour in sorting out the Tory mess?

There might be some room for manoeuvre because an Association Agreement giving at least partial access to the Single Market and Customs Union could be consistent with Labour’s promises and could also be the first step on the path to rejoining.

Is it enough to promise to work for “improved access to the Single Market and Customs Union” or  “a democratic way to reverse the mistake of Brexit”?

Postscript

One thing we do need to do is remind people that letting the Prime Minister set the date of an election encourages them to put their party first. A General Election this autumn would be bare-faced opportunism from the Tories.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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28 Comments

  • Freeborn John 25th Aug '22 - 2:26pm

    LibDems need to support brexit or they will be punished by the electorate again as in 2019. Some people appear to be slow learners but any policy to rejoin the single market or customs union is electoral suicide.

  • Jenny Barnes 25th Aug '22 - 2:26pm

    Proportional representation or no deal.

  • Paul Barker 25th Aug '22 - 2:28pm

    Obviously we all want to get this Government out as soon as possible but I think the article overplays the chance of an Autumn Election.
    The advantages for The Tories of getting out now are irrelevant, only one person decides the date of the Election, presumably Truss & we can’t guess her “thinking” on this. She might prefer 2 Years at the Top – we just don’t know.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 25th Aug '22 - 2:36pm

    Sorry but Mark this is all fantasy. No Tory leader as new PM does the same daft thing again. May called an unneccesary election and lost seats. Truss would lose an election and stand no chance of staying on as leader. Tories reward success they do not like failure.

    As for the Liberal Democrats not supporting a new Labour govt that is trying to “make Brexit work, ” do you think “make Brexit not work,” is us as a politically astute party, going to succeed with the electorate that already rejected the more mild but already lousy slogan “stop Brexit!”

    If you think a country that has been through austerity, Brexit, Covid, and cost of living crisis, wants to revisit the Brexit debate already, thinking like that shall drive more from our party to Labour than you might think! Yes point out Brexit is not working, but don’t ensure it is not, people do not like negativity. A new govt must be positive.

  • Starmer clearly doesn’t think joining sm/cu is a bad thing to do, he just can’t say it. However, werehe to need libdem seats for majority he could say: libdems made me. Brexit is the elephant in the room. Libdems should have a policy of rejoining the single market and customs union. Maybe not a full fom but we should allow any EU workers we need to staff NHS, pick harvests etc

  • Barry Lofty 25th Aug '22 - 3:10pm

    A very interesting and thought provoking article, I believe Brexit was a terrible mistake but we are where we are although the least we should expect a new government to prioritise is a sensible and friendly working relationship with our European neighbours. But common sense has not been very abundant in our country over the last few years and given the selfish arrogant individuals that have seemingly risen to the top in that time it does not give me much hope.

  • Chris Bertram 25th Aug '22 - 4:06pm

    I can’t see this happening. The Tory party exists to win elections, and right now they’d be sure to lose. They accept, with gritted teeth, that they may lose after a full 5-year term where they must call an election. But committing electoral suicide? No chance.

    That said, we should be wargaming scenarios for when an election *does* come along, with a stronger possiblity than normal of Labour not winning a majority because Scotland is lost to them. And I’m sorry for Brenda from Bristol, but it might involve two elections fairly close together after PR has been legislated for. That has to be our No. 1 priority. No referendum on a half-arsed compromise this time, Parliament is competent to legislate on its own electoral arrangements and has done so many times in the past. We have to go for it and stare down the opposition.

  • Opinion polls, local election results etc etc all point to the new Tory leader inheriting a poisoned chalice without any bounce in their favour. There is little or no chance of an Autumn election, it will probably be October 2024.
    As for our role in a Hung Parliament, let us be reasonable, we will be lucky to get 20 MP’s so will again be a bit part player. Leave the government to Labour supported by the SNP, Plaid and some from Northern Ireland. Sensible Opposition should be the name of the game.

  • Paul Barker 25th Aug '22 - 6:18pm

    Just on the comments so far.
    We already have a firm line on Coalition, Our Leader has already said that PR of some sort would have to be on offer, we aren’t going to row back on this.
    On Brexit, we want to Rejoin, most of our possible Voters know that – we can’t retreat from that without looking dishonest & sneaky. Its not as though anyone would believe that we have changed our minds. That is obviously a policy for the Long-Term though, not the next Election, for now we want the closest possible relationship without Rejoining.

    I can’t read minds & neither can anyone else. Truss is obviously deluded about lots of things – perhaps a few Tory leads would convince her she could Win ? We don’t know, we just have to keep our plans flexible.

  • Alex Macfie 25th Aug '22 - 6:31pm

    @Freeborn John, @Lorenzo: You’re stuck in the past if you think that seeking to reverse Brexit would be a vote loser at the next election, which will be the first to be fought on the reality of Brexit, rather than the fantasies peddled by its supporters. Chasing yesterday’s polling means you get left behind when public opinion changes.
    I remember the arguments about whether Lib Dem MPs should vote for or against Johnson’s final Brexit deal in December 2020. I was firmly on the side of voting against, but there were people saying it would be “electoral suicide”, and we should vote for it to show that we had “moved on” from the Brexit debate. Well since then we have won 3 Parliamentary seats from the Tories in by-elections, including 2 in Leave seats.
    Anyone who *now* brings up our opposition to Brexit as a reason not to vote for us is never going to vote for us anyway, even if we start openly supporting Brexit (which will lose us all our pro-EU supporters). This is because they’ll vote for True Believers rather than poll-chasers.

  • Alex is absolutely right. If we don’t at least campaign to rejoin the EEA and single market then we would lose remain voters who backed us in 2019 when we got 21% of the remain vote, up from 13% in 2017.

    We do need to win some soft leave voters but we can do that without pretending to believe Brexit is a success when it isn’t.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 25th Aug '22 - 11:45pm

    Alex

    I certainly do not disagree with your point that as I ststed, to point out Brexit was a lousy thing, is fine. But to seem as if we act or speak as if we in fact desire it to fail, is a bad idea also.

    A govt led by Labour is going to want to have a while to try and make Brexit work. We can and must show the way to, is to have a close working friendly rapport with the EU. Of course we ought to plan a policy to try and rejoin one day. But the EU needs to alter if this country is going to be keen on the EU and them on this country!

  • Rif Winfield 26th Aug '22 - 8:24am

    Please let us be realistic about all the possible scenarios – and the likely consequences of such scenarios. Mark Argent’s scenario is perfectly possible, so LibDems need to be geared up against the possibility of a General Election this autumn. The outcome is most likely to be a hung Parliament, with Labour as the largest party but short of an overall majority. However there is a growing chance that Labour would now win an overall majority; in that case they would choose to govern alone and would support the existing electoral system, on the basis that the present system has given them the result they wanted. If they are short of a majority the most likely source of support from them would either be the SNP or the LibDems (depending on how many seats they are short). The SNP will certainly have their own red line – agreement to hold a referendum on independence – which in the economic circumstances prevailing in a year’s time they would likely win. With Northern Ireland opinion now moving away from support from Unionism (as demonstrated by this year’s elections there), the United Kingdom could be reduced to England and Wales before the end of this decade (and support for Welsh separatism is likely to rise too). Such a result would easily see the Tories returning to power in the following general election (thereby giving strong evidence in favour of Mark’s scenario).

  • Rif Winfield 26th Aug '22 - 8:29am

    It would be stupid for LibDems to bank all their hopes on the skim chances of a mathematical possibility that the number of LibDem seats would make the difference between Labour forming the next government or not doing so. A full coalition with Labour would be as destructive as the one with the Conservatives was a decade ago – the LibDems would get the blame for all the economic and political choices that that government would be forced to make by the circumstances.

  • Alex Macfie 26th Aug '22 - 8:36am

    Rif Winfield: But what else is there to hope for (other than the very long shot of Lib Dems as the largest party)?

  • Chris Moore 26th Aug '22 - 9:34am

    Regarding Rejoin: this is an electorally suicidal policy.

    If you upfront alienate 50% of the electorate, you will not win many seats in a FPTP system.

    Worse, even in Remain majority seats, there are large minorities of Leave voters.

    This is why we came close, but no cigar, in some strongly Remain leaning seats in 2019. Leave voters in Guildford for example voted en bloc against us, meaning we had to win a heroic % of Guildford Remain voters to get across the line. It was never going to happen.

    We should really understand this by now. And be capable of using a little guile and strategy.

    For example, GE 22/23/24: LD policy: seek a close working relationship with our European partners, but no going back into European institutions, as no generalised popular desire for this.

    Subsequent GE, depending on developments: argue for going back into Customs’ Union to improve trade relations and end the NI anomaly.

    If this ever happens, and is successful, thereafter argue for return to Single Market.

    We only have any influence, if we win decent numbers of seats. We won’t win decent numbers of seats, if we repeat the crass errors of 2019.

    We need to

  • David Garlick 26th Aug '22 - 11:00am

    The reality is that Brexit is, whilst not done, irreversable in the short/medium term.
    We must make Brexit a damge limitation exercise whist maximising any opportuiities. Cooperation with the EU on many National/global issues looks to be a no brainer if we can build a relationship that works. If we do that then there are many ways to continue to match up our laws/rules and regulations which this country would support. We should make no secret of our wish to rejoin the EU when the time is right.
    My expectation is that Global warming will see cooperation strengthen in the EU and we might get left out in the cold. We do have an opportunity to build a close cooperaative network with the Commonwealth! Something that always amazes me has never really happened. Maybe now is the time.

  • @Chris Moore: That’s the sort of thing I mean when I refer to “chasing yesterday’s polling”. Basically you are assuming that voters in general will have the same perception of Brexit at the next GE as they did in 2019, ignoring the fundamental difference that Brexit has now happened and there are metrics for measuring whether it has been a success or not. The next GE will be the “Brexit reality” election, so the debates and positions leading up to 2019GE will be a distant memory for most voters.

  • Alex, the next GE will NOT be the “Brexit Reality” election. You are deceiving yourself. It’s going to take longer than that. Patience is required.

    What’s more, you’ve forgotten that many “moderate” Remain voters were put of by our desire to re-open a question they considered closed. There’s no general appetite for re-visitng Brexit.

    So Rejoin would be a massive mistake. Still if we base our electoral campaign on PR, LVT, Universal Basic Income and Rejoin, then Rejoin will only be one humoungous electoral error amongst others, and you’ll be able to blame it on the others.

  • Alex Macfie 26th Aug '22 - 7:16pm

    Chris Moore: You are still talking about what people were thinking in December 2019. You write “many “moderate” Remain voters were put of by our desire to re-open a question they considered closed” (my emphasis). For sure, the siren call “Get Brexit Done” was very enticing, and it is easy to see how even some Remainers might have thought the easietst thing would be to get it done and consider the question “closed”. But subsequent events have demonstrated that the question is NOT, and cannot be closed, because of the very real real-world consequences of “Getting Brexit done”, reminiscent of the worst predictions of so-called “Project Fear”.. Do you think those same voters are gong to be grateful to the Tories for delivered Brexit and its foreseeable consequences? I’ll tell you that anyone who is grateful for Brexit or who doesn’t want to “reiopen” a “closed” question will not consider voting Lib Dem. This is true even if we abandoned our opposition to Brexit and any long-term wish to rejoin, because we would not be remotely credible.

    It could be argued that we showed our unwillingness to accept that the Brexit question is “closed” by voting against Johnon’s deal. It doesn’t seem to have harmed our electoral prospects, even among some Leave voters.

  • Chris Moore – post election studies have found that the problem in 2019 was that we didn’t explain to voters what our policies were *other* than stopping Brexit. Being pro-remain was not the problem in itself.

    Poll after poll suggests that more people think we we wrong to leave than right to leave. So why do you oppose representing the views of the majority of the electorate of 2022?

  • Yes of course Brexit was a mistake that has, and will continue to damage our economy significantly. However, arguing for ‘rejoin’ is not only likely to damage our electoral prospects at the next GE but is also pointless as the EU are unlikely to want us back anyway as we have been so unreasonable over leaving.

  • @Barry Fleet you make a good point about the EU not necessarily wanting us back. I’m an ardent re-joiner, but I’m afraid I find it quite arrogant to say rejoin now, as though it’s solely up to us.
    Brexit wasn’t like walking out of a room, where if you change your mind you can turn round and walk back in again. It was more like walking out of a room and then jumping off a cliff. When you’re at the bottom of the cliff, turning round and walking in the room again is not an option. You need to climb the cliff before you even get to the room, and that will take a lot of time and work.
    Brexit was a stupid decision, but it happened – and that changed the whole situation. So I think our line should be: yes we’d like to rejoin. No question, we are a rejoin party.* But we’re realistic enough – and we respect our EU friends enough – to know it won’t happen overnight. It’s our medium/long-term objective. But in the meantime this country has are other problems we need to deal with.
    *Ed and Layla need to be bolder about saying this part out loud.

  • Martin, Thank you for sharing your insight. The only bit I would change is where you say “The obvious issue is trust, which has been systematically eviscerated by the UK.”

    I think it would be more true to say “The obvious issue is trust, which has been systematically eviscerated by the Conservative Party”.

    This then fits with your aim of building bridges with our colleagues in Europe. Once the Conservatives have been comprehensively smashed at the next General Election, which will depend on us winning swathes of seats in rural areas (particularly the South West but also elsewhere), we can start to rebuild those smashed bridges.

    The EU know it was never the Lib Dems who were the cause of the problem, but a government with us as a significant and determined part of it, would be a great step forward.

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