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Why are UK opposition parties lagging behind Boris Johnson's Tories?

Why are UK opposition parties lagging behind Boris Johnson's Tories?
Copyright REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Copyright REUTERS/Simon Dawson
By Alasdair Sandford
Published on Updated
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Although under fire from all sides over Brexit, Britain's ruling Conservatives under Prime Minister Boris Johnson still lead in the opinion polls.


Boris Johnson is booed and jeered when he appears in public. His government has lost its parliamentary majority after a rebellion by its own MPs. He has been taken to court over his suspension of parliament and found to have broken the law. His drive for a new Brexit deal is derided as pie in the sky and a new law stands in the way of his determination to get the UK out of the EU without one if necessary.

Britain’s nationalist prime minister is under fire at home and abroad over Brexit. The United Kingdom is in the midst of its biggest political crisis since the Second World War. And yet, at the weekend, another opinion poll gave his ruling party a significant lead over the opposition.

The Opinium poll for the Observer newspaper put support for the Conservatives at 37%, a full 15 points ahead of Labour on 22%. The Liberal Democrats were on 17%, with the Brexit Party on 12%.

In other circumstances, the country’s main opposition party could be expected to be romping ahead. The government – and particular its leader – are loathed by opponents of a no-deal Brexit who believe Johnson is bent on crashing the economy purely to satisfy his own personal ambition. They are distrusted by those on the nationalist right, who suspect they will fail again to deliver Brexit on time.

Brexit neutrality – a wise choice for Labour?

For Labour, it should be an open goal. But the party under Jeremy Corbyn has tied itself in knots over the UK’s most pressing issue. The Conservatives under Johnson are clearly for Brexit, as is – its name spells it out – the Brexit Party. The Liberal Democrats are clearly against it (as their less-than-subtle campaign slogan has proclaimed). So too are the Greens and the nationalist parties, the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales.

Labour, however, has shifted uncomfortably on the Brexit fence. Having opposed the compromise deal struck by former premier Theresa May’s government, and under pressure from both sides of the Leave/Remain divide, its ambiguous stance has left many unsatisfied.

At the party’s annual conference in Brighton, Corbyn won support for his strategy of staying neutral for the time being. A vote was passed, backing his plan to try to win an election, renegotiate a Brexit deal with the EU, put it to a second referendum against an option to remain – and only decide its stance later.

Read more:

Labour party members vote against pro-EU stance for election run

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The result saw off a challenge by members who wanted Labour unequivocally to back remaining in the European Union. But critics have questioned the wisdom of a party which will be unable to state during an election campaign whether it is for or against Brexit. It also raises the prospect of Labour potentially failing to back an agreement it had specifically negotiated for the country’s benefit.

Previous interventions have left observers equally baffled. Corbyn has said Labour would campaign to remain in the EU if Boris Johnson tried to drive through a no-deal Brexit. The party has backed a second referendum – but only under certain conditions. After the 2016 referendum, in which 52% voted to leave the EU, it said it respected the result.

The problem is the party’s internal divisions. Labour’s party membership – like several prominent frontbench figures – are overwhelmingly pro-EU. But Corbyn and some of his closest aides are not. Several Labour MPs represent Brexit-supporting constituencies and believe fervently that the UK must leave. Labour-backing trade unions are split.

Add in public scepticism over other policies, controversies such as the row over anti-Semitism in the party, and questions over Corbyn’s leadership – and this may explain why Labour has failed to damage the Conservatives as would otherwise be expected.

Lib Dems' clarity masks dangers

In contrast, the Liberal Democrats confirmed a crystal-clear stance on Brexit at their party conference in Bournemouth. Leader Jo Swinson said that if elected to power, as prime minister would immediately revoke Article 50 – the formal mechanism for leaving the EU.


But her stance too has been criticised – for potentially boxing the Lib Dems into a corner. Is it wise for the party to promise to cancel Brexit without a second referendum? What would happen if Boris Johnson won a Brexit deal, and took the UK out of the EU? Then, stopping Brexit would be too late. Would the Lib Dems then campaign to rejoin?

Critics have suggested that the Liberal Democrats risk becoming too much of a “niche” party, winning the support of hardcore Remainers but not among enough of the wider public. The electoral geography also suggests they face an uphill struggle to win many more seats at an election.

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The Conservative Party also risks another potential electoral wipeout in Scotland, where the popular Ruth Davidson – a vocal critic of Johnson – has stood down as party leader, and the Scottish Nationalists stand to gain from opposition to Brexit.

Boris Johnson is also threatened by another party with an absolutist stance. Nigel Farage’s newly-founded Brexit Party favours leaving the EU without a deal and promises an overhaul of British politics.

It came top of the European elections in May – which helped propel the ruling Conservatives to their current commitment to deliver Brexit in October, in Johnson’s words, “come what may”. Yet its performance at a general election is untested, a stage where Farage’s previous party UKIP has failed to build on past successes. If Johnson delivers Brexit, its purpose may be rendered meaningless.


The prime minister faces formidable challenges in achieving his goal. Party insiders have warned that the Conservatives will be finished if the UK fails to leave the EU. Opponents believe they may well suffer a similar fate if Brexit does happen, especially without a deal.

However, the state of the UK’s opposition parties and the findings of various opinion polls suggest that Boris Johnson and his government – although deeply unpopular in many quarters – may be far from down and out in the eyes of voters.

It is too early to say what the impact will be of Tuesday's devastating ruling by the Supreme Court, which found that the prime minister's decision to suspend parliament was unlawful.

Read more:


No-deal Brexit: everything you need to know

Brexit Guide: Where are we now?

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