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Boris Johnson’s general election gambit is eerily similar to the machinations of 100 years ago

Boris Johnson’s general election gambit is eerily similar to the machinations of 100 years ago

In Simon Heffer’s new 900-page history of the First World War, Staring at God, he describes the coupon election hysteria of a century ago.

Prime Minister David Lloyd George and the Conservatives called the election held in December 1918 to cash in on the victory celebration fever that swept Britain after the armistice with Germany.

So called “coupons”, letters of support for one’s demonstrated patriotism, were issued to toady loyalist MPs who supported Lloyd George and the Tory party and denied to the Liberal MPs who had formed the great reforming Liberal government after 1906.

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Lloyd George showed no loyalty to his liberal ideology and no loyalty to his former colleagues. Liberal MPs who did not receive the coalition coupon were by-and-large defeated.

He was in every sense the Boris Johnson of his day interested only in his status as prime minister. He was seen as a man without principles, interested only in office, and as unfaithful to his wife and family as our own prime minister.

The election was called with the kind of feverish language we hear from Dominic Cummings about Brexit.

Anti-German demagogy about “squeezing the Germans until the pips squeak” and demands to “Hang the Kaiser” were on the front page of the Daily Mail just as anti-European headlines have filled that paper since the Brexit referendum.

The Labour Party was presented as in the grip of mad Marxists inspired by the Bolshevik revolution much as Jeremy Corbyn is presented as a demented socialist controlled by communist aides seeking to turn Britain into Venezuela.

The coupon election handed over political control of Ireland to Sinn Fein. Ireland was quickly plunged into its short brutal war of independence as Lloyd George now firmly under the control of the Tory right refused any compromise or negotiated settlement much as Boris Johnson refuses all compromise on Brexit or meeting the EU half-way.

Lloyd George stayed in Downing Street but the coupon election reinforced the right and the Commons was full of what Stanley Baldwin called “lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war”.

Similarly, Boris Johnson will issue coupons to any Tory or indeed Labour candidate prepared to parrot the Brexit lines and the denunciations of Europe that he believes is the essence of modern English identity if he gets his way and holds an election. He hopes to see a “lot of hard-faced men and women” on the benches behind him who look as if they have done very well out of denigrating Europe.

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Will he get his way? Does every Tory MP want to swear eternal obeisance to Johnson and the offshore owners of our press with their description of judges as “enemies of the people” and describing any MP who did not vote for extreme anti-European measures as guilty of “treason” and “sabotage” in the kind of extremist language used in the coupon election of a century ago?

It is far from clear that Johnson is our new Lloyd George, as much as he might like to be cast in this light.

Scotland is today what Ireland was a century ago, a nation no longer sure it wants to be ruled by an Old Etonian public school elite from southern England. Support for Scottish secession and separatism has increased strongly since 2016. A poll carried out by Lord Ashcroft soon after Johnson became prime minister showed for the first time since the European referendum a majority of Scots prepared to vote for secession.

In any general election that will be confirmed so like Sinn Fein in 1918, the SNP can expect to win most seats in Scotland.

There is a confusion between seats in the north that voted Leave, with the assumption they are all uniformly ready to vote for Johnson as prime minister. In fact in many so-called safe Labour working class seats up to half or more voters in a general election vote Tory, UKIP, BNP or for other opposition parties.

It is the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system that makes seats so solidly Labour. But the majority of Labour voters also voted against cutting off economic ties with Europe and in a general election when there will be many more hearth and home issues in voters’ minds – housing, health, zero hours contracts, crime, air quality,  huge student loan debts – of far greater import than Brexit.

The - and broadcasters will have to give equal time to Corbyn and the Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, and it is far from certain that a four- or five-week election campaign can be sustained only on the issue of Brexit. The Liberal Democrats today are insurgents unlike the tired old Asquith-Liberal ex-cabinet ministers in 1918. Johnson has terrible poll ratings with women, for obvious reasons.

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Any offer he makes on more spending on public services or raising the minimum wage can be easily matched by Labour.

In the end, Boris Johnson is not Lloyd George. He does not have Lloyd George’s record of winning the great war still less of the progressive social reforms associated with George like bringing in pensions. About the only thing he shares with George is a keen interest in women or, as Sir Max Hastings crudely put it “the willy problem”.

It is far from clear that a Brexit coupon election will work for Johnson. But like the First World War, Brexit is changing everything we thought we knew about politics in Britain.

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