Tories Get Nervous as Chaos Hits Johnson’s U.K. Election Train

Tim Ross

(Bloomberg) -- Sign up to our Brexit Bulletin, follow us @Brexit and subscribe to our podcast.

Just after 9 p.m. on Wednesday, half the British cabinet were marooned on a cold railway platform 114 miles northwest of London.

Along with thousands of other passengers, senior ministers including Michael Gove, Liz Truss and Steve Barclay trudged through Birmingham International Station trying to make sense of the cancellations and delays as they searched for a working train to take them home.

It was a chaotic end to a day of blunders that had damaged Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives as they launched their campaign for votes in the Dec. 12 general election. Senior party officials now fear their campaign is poorly organized and falling flat, and worry many more missteps will let opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn into power.

Britain’s Election Gamble -- What You Need to Know: QuickTake

Johnson triggered the early election because he could not get his Brexit deal ratified in Parliament. Opposition parties refused to allow him to rush his agreement into law, then blocked his backup plan to take the country out of the European Union without a deal at the end of October.

Eventually a humiliated prime minister was forced to accept a three-month Brexit delay -- despite repeatedly promising he would never do so.

Johnson argued that an obstructive Parliament -- where his ruling Tory party lacked a majority -- must be replaced, and finally persuaded MPs to give him the election he craved to break the deadlock. Now he’s appealing to voters to return him to power with a majority so he can “get Brexit done” and move on to other priorities, including investing in schools, the police and health service.

Self-Inflicted Damage

But the Tories spent Wednesday -- the first official day of campaigning -- battling to contain self-inflicted damage. Senior officials fought to protect cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg from calls to resign, after he suggested 72 people killed in a tower-block fire in 2017 hadn’t shown “common sense.”

By lunchtime, another cabinet minister, Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns, quit over a scandal that stemmed from a collapsed rape trial. It was the first time a minister had been forced to resign from cabinet in the middle of an election campaign for at least 100 years.

In Birmingham on Wednesday evening, Johnson tried to get his campaign back on track. Cabinet ministers swelled the audience of hundreds of activists in the National Exhibition Centre, next to the station, watching the barnstorming speech. He was aided by the fact Labour was suffering its own problems with the resignation of deputy leader Tom Watson.

“What you have seen is an electric start to our campaign, in terms of a prime minister selling his vision,” Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said when asked about the setbacks. That vision hinges on getting Brexit done. “To deliver Britain’s exit from the European Union, he needs to have a working majority,” Williamson said in an interview.

Daily Frustrations

Yet the railway chaos that caught out the cabinet held a double irony -- not only was the Tory campaign running similarly off schedule, but the leaders of the party branded “out of touch” by opponents were suddenly facing frustrations that form part of daily life for many travelers in Britain.

On the overcrowded platform, the stranded ministers allowed several slow, stopping services to pass through before piling onto a packed express train to London. They had to take whichever seats were free.

The British railways were privatized by the Tories in the 1990s, and Corbyn wants to nationalize the network again. It’s populist policies like this -- and the promise of huge spending on public services -- that are likely to secure Labour support from voters who are fed up with a decade of austerity.

Dueling Chancellors Send U.K. Spending Pledges Through the Roof

In 2017, Labour’s radical manifesto transformed Corbyn from an opposition leader who was written off by some as a joke to a popular left wing hero who almost took power, winning 40% of the vote.

Tory Fears

Privately, some of the Conservative party’s most senior and experienced officials fear the veteran Labour leader could repeat the trick, even though his party is mired in infighting and allegations of antisemitism. Speaking on condition of anonymity because the matter is sensitive, one said Johnson won’t win a majority if the party continues to make blunders.

Another said the party still has a huge task to explain why an election is needed now, given the last one was in 2017 and the next wasn’t due until 2022.

Voters want to move on from Brexit, so focusing on it is risky for Johnson. It’s also an area that’s ripe for missteps. When a video emerged late Thursday of the prime minister explaining the implications of his divorce deal for Northern Irish trade, opposition parties said he sounded like he was making the case for staying in the EU.

And while Johnson is promising to deliver the divorce quickly and then focus on domestic priorities, Corbyn’s campaign is already concentrating on the policies voters care about -- the National Health Service, housing, childcare and wages. That’s a calculation that is worrying Tory officials.

It’s early days in a highly unpredictable election, but the fear for Conservatives is that while Johnson talks about moving on from Brexit, it’s Corbyn who looks as though he already has.

(Adds detail on Labour in paragraph after ‘Tory Fears’ crosshead.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Tim Ross in London at tross54@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson at fjackson@bloomberg.net, Stuart Biggs, Thomas Penny

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.