Boris's big gamble: Will U.K. voters remain focused on Brexit?

A chance to “hold history in your hands.” That’s what coin collectors are fond of saying about their often-thought-to-be fusty hobby.

It’s an entirely different story though if you’re trying to get ahead of the curve and actually anticipate history in the making.

But twice now, Britain’s Royal Mint has done just that, acting on government instructions to prepare thousands of commemorative coins to mark a “Brexit Day” that hovers still unrealized on the horizon.

This week, the U.K. Treasury confirmed it will be recycling the latest batch of coins “bearing the October date.”

That’s Oct. 31, 2019, to be precise.

The decision to “recycle” came after the European Union agreed last week to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s request for yet another extension, despite his famous declaration that he would rather “die in a ditch” than ask for one.

These 50p commemorative Brexit coins, bearing the date March 29, 2019, were planned to mark the U.K.’s departure from the EU. That date was delayed. Now coins minted for the latest date, Oct. 31, are set to be recycled following another delay. (HM Treasury/Twitter)

“We will still produce a coin to mark our departure from the European Union,” a Treasury spokesperson said in a statement.

The next potential date is Jan. 31, 2020, the day set out in the EU’s agreed extension. But between then and now, there is also a British general election, set for Dec. 12.

And despite Johnson’s apparent confidence that he’ll win that election tidally and finally “get Brexit done,” analysts suggest recent history would counsel caution.

“You know, in 2017, we had a snap election when Theresa May was riding high in the polls and a lot of people thought she’d be able to increase her majority,” said Maddy Thimont Jack, of the Institute for Government, a London-based think-tank. “But instead she actually lost a majority and returned a minority government.”

Like Johnson, May staked her credibility on a pledge to take Britain out of the EU, though “Brexit means Brexit” was her mantra of choice.

It was her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, who ordered the first set of commemorative Brexit coins, to be dated March 29, 2019.

“I think a lot will depend on the nature of the campaign, and also whether Brexit remains the focus or whether other issues facing the United Kingdom end up coming more into prominence,” said Thimont Jack.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is hoping that electing a new crop of lawmakers will provide a solution to the deadlock that has stalled the U.K.’s departure from the European Union. (Aaron Chown/Reuters)

The latest public opinion poll by Ipsos MORI puts Johnson and his Conservative Party ahead in the polls at 41 per cent support.

That compares to 24 per cent for the opposition Labour Party, which has delivered mixed messages on Brexit, and 20 per cent for the Liberal Democrats, campaigning on a straight-up promise to remain in the EU.

Numbers aside, Robert Ford, a political science professor at the University of Manchester, still calls Johnson’s decision to call a general election a gamble. Like Thimont Jack, he too hearkens back to the 2017 campaign. 

“We all thought [it] would just be a referendum on Brexit — that was how it was being framed. And this is again the case now,” he said.

“The Conservatives want to make this about getting Brexit done. But most voters are probably pretty fed up of hearing about Brexit and they have other concerns. And Labour will be working very, very hard to get those other concerns on the agenda.”

Labour also has to contend with being helmed by the most unpopular opposition leader of the past 45 years, at least according to the results of an earlier Ipsos Mori poll.

Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves after a launch event in London for his party’s general election campaign on Oct. 31. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

But Ford again points to the 2017 election campaign, when Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s dismal popularity ratings turned around considerably by the end of the campaign.

“On the other hand, maybe another two years of exposure to Jeremy Corbyn has left voters with a more entrenched negative view of him than they had before,” he said. “And maybe when they compare him to Johnson, [it] will be less favourable than it was when they were comparing him to May.” 

There’s also a strong possibility that Corbyn will have alienated Remain supporters within the Labour Party with his perceived “on the fence” position on Brexit.

Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats have picked up support and alienated Conservative and Labour MPs with their unequivocal Stop Brexit campaign.

Still, even Conservative MPs acknowledge the potential risks involved in calling an election, especially given that Johnson didn’t even try to get the withdrawal agreement he negotiated with the EU all the way through Parliament. 

“May I ask the leader of the House what we are to say to constituents and others about the fact that we may be able to find time for a five- to six-week general election campaign, and then the rigmarole of forming a government, and yet not for bringing back the withdrawal bill?” senior backbench Conservative MP Simon Hoare asked in Parliament at the time.

Pro-Brexit activists protest on Whitehall in London on Oct. 31. (Peter Summers/Getty Images)

Key for Johnson will be holding on to, or winning back, pro-Brexit voters who abandoned May in 2017 for what was then the U.K. Independence Party; they’re now being courted by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

Johnson is a “more natural performer” than his predecessor when it comes to campaigning, Ford acknowledges. “But the flipside to that is he’s very unpredictable and he has a habit of saying things that offend people.”

There’s also the distinct possibility that the next Parliament returned by the British people will be just as deadlocked and divided as the current one.

And that may still offer a chance for those campaigning for a second EU referendum, according to Thimont Jack.

“If [Johnson] didn’t get his majority, if an alternative government was formed — for example, a Labour government potentially in some kind of coalition arrangement with smaller opposition parties — then if they wanted to hold a referendum, they would have to go to the EU and ask for a longer extension to do that,” she said.

So it still may be a bit too early to start planning the next batch of Brexit Day coins. 

For the record, the Royal Mint produced a commemorative coin to mark Britain joining the European Union back in 1973. And one in 1998, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the U.K. joining the EU, which coincided with the U.K.’s presidency of the EU.

History can be a fickle, slippery thing — especially where Brexit is involved.

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