Many before the UK election thought that this was going to be an election of historic importance and that is how it has proved to be. It was truly the Brexit election, much though some leaders tried to pretend otherwise, and the Brexit Conservative Party were the winners. Brexit was above all a crisis within the Conservative Party. They were thought to be in existential danger several months ago, and of being about to split irretrievably. Yet, if there was no Conservative Party, one would have to be invented. It has a genius for reinvention and in the pressure of the Brexit crisis has out-manoeuvred its opponents and emerged the victors. As such, in its election victory on Thursday, it confirmed itself as one of the most successful post-war European parties, much though many in Europe would not like to think of it that way. Its success, and the removal of the road blocks since the 2016 referendum now pave the way at last for the implementation of Brexit, for better or for worse.
An electoral realignment behind a re-structured Tory coalition
It has all the hallmarks of a realignment in electoral forces. Johnson won because his party were able to organise the Leave vote and take support from Farage’s Brexit Party on the right. The Remain side, by contrast were divided. The range of Remain pressure groups failed to come together and the biggest one, The People’s Vote, fell into an internal power struggle. The Remain vote was split between Labour, who did at least gain as the campaign progressed, and the smaller LDP who steadily lost support as the “squeeze” of the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system took its toll. Johnson and Cummings knew that an election was far more likely to defeat Remain than a second referendum and Swinson of the LDP, Corbyn and the SNP obliged by agreeing to an election. The Tories could fight on “The People vs Parliament” question and with a very effective slogan, “Get Brexit Done”, and exploit the Remain split. It succeeded devastatingly.
Yet what is so important as regards a realignment is that Johnson appears to have completed the process of constructing a new Tory governing coalition, in electoral terms, between the small town and rural middle class of Southern England and the northern and midland former working-class industrial towns and villages. A whole swathe of the latter seats, long before seen as Labour strongholds, fell to the Tories. These were the areas that voted Leave in 2016 and to whom Corbyn’s Labour failed to make a convincing appeal with their “anything but Brexit” policy presentation.
Corbyn was clearly detested by voters, perhaps one of the most unpopular party leaders in modern times. While Johnson is not exactly loved, and is clearly distrusted, he appeared as far more focused and determined on delivery. After the paralysis of the years since the 2016 referendum, this was a relief. Labour has struggled to appeal to both Remain and Leave and looked unclear. Thus, they confirmed what many Midlands and Northern former working-class voters thought, that he did not speak for them. Johnson’s offering of limited increased spending on popular domestic policy areas like the NHS, transport, housing and the police combined with fiscal discipline and constraints on immigration, along with the overriding promise to “get Brexit done”, far more impacted people than the Labour Party’s enormous and confusing list of domestic reforms which people appeared not to believe would be delivered or afforded.
Thus, Johnson’s party, purged of its One Nation moderate wing, has re-constructed itself as a stridently nationalistic and particularly English party with a base of support that has acquired whole new ex-working-class communities. Arguably this coalition is more broad-based than Labour which more and more appears as a city-based liberal elite movement that is losing important areas of its social base. This trend, also seen in other European countries, has been happening a while and pre-dates the 2016 referendum, but the issue of Brexit has sharpened and emphasised the new divide.
Opportunities and threats that lie in wait for Johnson’s regime
Johnson has won a big majority under Britain’s FPTP system and is in a strong position to do what he wants, if he knows what that is. Undoubtedly he can now push through Parliament the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement unopposed, having by this election removed the Parliamentary obstacles that were in his way, and Brexit can happen on 31 January 2020. Beyond that however, is the huge uncertainty of the Trade Treaty negotiations. He has given hostages to fortune by his promises that the Transition period to end-December 2020 will not be extended and that Britain will exit transition, deal or no deal. Also any extension has to be agreed by June. Moreover all expect these negotiations to be far longer than one year. Thus Johnson has promised the undeliverable, a trade deal in one year, and deceived voters that Brexit would be “done”, unless Britain leaves without a deal. Thus we have more cliff-edges to come, and, if Johnson wants a deal, difficulties with his newly-united and purged party.
Domestically, Johnson gave few concrete offerings away. Fiscally, he is expected to increase borrowing to meet the spending promises on areas like the NHS and a tax cut in National Insurance contributions, but otherwise he avoided the very big promises of Corbyn. The Institute for Fiscal Studies have warned that such a policy is currently unfunded and that taxes will need to rise or more austerity will be needed later, especially if unsuccessful trade negotiations result in a fall in GDP. There were dark hints in the Tory manifesto, page 48, that a commission on the constitution would be set up, the Fixed Terms Parliaments Act would be repealed, the Human Rights Act would be “reviewed”, and that the royal prerogative and judicial review would be examined in the light of the events of this year and last which frustrated Tory attempts to get Brexit through. Thus observers fear that there might be a tightening and reinforcement of the traditional quasi-authoritarianism that underpins the British political system and its “concentration of power” in the hands of the PM and its parliamentary majority. Thus there might be a time of reckoning for those that are perceived to have frustrated the “will of the people” expressed in 2016.
What we do not hear much about, since it was kept firmly under wraps, is whether those wealthy forces that back the Tory party and figure amongst the European Research Group (ERG), that expect a reduction in the state and a firm shift further towards the “free market” and neo-liberalism, will see new policies announced that make clear that the new regime is going to move in a hard right direction consistent with its transatlantic connections and suspected funding through think tanks like the IEA. Much was made by the opposition of a threatened privatisation of the NHS and an opening up to US pharmaceuticals, or cheaper, less regulated food imports. Set against this expected direction are those that think that Johnson with his large majority is now free of the ERG and can also develop policy to bring in those midland and northern forces that voted him into power so convincingly. Thus, some say, there is an “inner liberal” in Johnson waiting to leap out. Or it might be that in reality Johnson is like Disraeli, with no fixed principle other than power. Famously in the period 1872-4 Disraeli built up expectation as a social reformer and gained middle class support but, once he trounced the perceived radical Gladstone in the 1874 election, sat at the cabinet table, with his new politicians all expectant of this new dynamism, and his opening remarks were along the lines of “What, gentlemen, shall we do?” Johnson is about power, pure and simple.
Nationalism can’t have it both ways
Johnson has arguably succeed in part by an appeal to nationalism, the nationalism stimulated by fear of immigration in 2016, the sense of relative decline and of being ignored, and in general the desire to break away from perceived European domination and to “take back control”. Yet this is a distinctively English, and to a lesser extent, Welsh nationalism, and takes no significant account of Scottish and Northern Irish concerns. In those two latter “nations”, the vote in 2016 was for Remain and this has been confirmed in 2019. The SNP performed powerfully, although not quite so strongly as in the 2015 election.
Yet Johnson has behaved in ways that largely ignore those votes. In Ireland, the pro-Leave DUP performed badly and there is very considerable concern about the impact of Johnson’s Brexit deal which is expected to hit Northern Irish business badly. It is possible that moves to hold a referendum on reunification with the South will occur. Similarly, Scotland is clearly pro-EU and Sturgeon is leveraging her success to demand a second referendum on independence. Johnson opposed a Scottish referendum, although an Irish one is not in his control under the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and the conflict with Sturgeon could well get very serious. Opinion polls in Scotland have shown a small lead for “No” to independence but this is within the margin of error.
An untried force
Crucially too, Johnson himself is still an untested entity, clearly distrusted by voters as well as very many observers and commentators. He has very little ministerial experience, and his short spell under May as foreign secretary is not seen as a success. The Foreign Office even held a party when he resigned. He gained his reputation as the almost single-handed inventor of what his European opponents call the “Euromyth”, that “Brussels” was some authoritarian, bureaucratic monster out to destroy British independence and enterprise, with a series of reports from Brussels full of lies. As Mayor of London, he achieved little of lasting note but was a great self-publicist.
Personally though, it is hard if not impossible to know what he really thinks. Despite his doing the “populist” thing and appearing “the real deal”, he is personally very secretive. His election performance was clearly tightly and very efficiently managed by a party with ample funds to spend. He has an ability to hide when under pressure, even in a fridge during the campaign. Many say he is all bluff, blunder and bluster, and an incurable liar. Yet, to the careful observer, he has hard, shifty, calculating eyes. Johnson is not what he seems. Thus, it is interesting that he has engendered such distrust. He might of course dispel these fears, but then, under the glare of repeated attention, these characteristics might get reinforced. He might have won an election, a considerable feat, and ensured Brexit can happen – to Remainers not quite so good – but beyond that it is very unclear.
Johnson could find, like Gladstone and the Liberals in the late 19th and early 20th century, that the modern version of the Irish Question and now the Scottish Question, along with failure in securing advantageous trade deals and a subsequent blow to GDP and a recession, could de-rail his regime. While Johnson is glowing in the success of his “get Brexit done” enterprise, and seemingly have all before him to accomplish, the detached observer can detect shoals ahead that could yet sink project Boris.
Article first published in Europaunited.eu on 13 December 2019.