Johnson’s Brave New World

For many people in Britain, one of the rituals of an election is Election Night on the TV.   In the past people would watch well into the small hours as the outcome slowly emerged – some of our readers may still remember the 1992 election, where initial predictions of a hung parliament gave way over the night to a Conservative victory, with John Major eventually securing a 20-seat majority.  High drama indeed, and all the more compelling viewing for taking several hours to unfold.

These days there is no such suspense.  The exit polls are available the moment the polling stations close, and are quite remarkably accurate.  Theresa May knew within minutes that her gamble of calling the 2017 election had backfired, while last Thursday Boris Johnson knew equally quickly that his had been spectacularly successful. 

Those who only wanted to know the result before they turned in for the night could turn off the TV then and there, confident that when they woke up, it would indeed be to a Johnson victory.  The initial predictions of 368 Conservative seats and a majority of 86 were only very slightly different from the final result of 365 Tory MPs and a majority of 80.  So no change there.  But after this most unexpected Conservative landslide, almost every other facet of British politics has in our opinion changed beyond recognition.

For this really is a stunning result, a victory well beyond Tory expectations and perhaps even beyond their dreams.  Indeed we would suggest that the 2019 election will go down as one of those mould-breaking elections which, like Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 or Clement Attlee’s in 1945, changed Britain for at least a generation.

Most immediate analysis has focused on the Labour party, for whom the result was truly disastrous and for whom the future now looks most uncertain.  A final tally of just 203 MPs represents the party’s worst result for over 80 years, worse even than their post-War nadir of 209 seats after Michael Foot’s 1983 campaign.  Many of the seats the Conservatives captured last week had been held by Labour for generations;  more than a dozen had never returned a Tory MP in their entire history.

As the party’s post-mortem gets under way, there is no shortage of explanations for Labour’s rout.  Some blame the party’s equivocal and unconvincing stance on Brexit, where the Tory position was blunt, easily understood and more in tune with the electorate.  Others highlight the stench of anti-Semitism that the party was unable to throw off.  For the foot-soldiers who were out campaigning, and who heard the voice of the voters directly, the single most negative factor was their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, whose unpopularity ratings reached levels beyond those of any other political leader in British history.  The party leadership, meanwhile, tries to comfort itself with the thought that they tried too hard, had too many radical ideas and ended up simply confusing the electorate. 

Whichever of these was the cause – and it is probable that there is some truth in all of them – the outcome was a manifesto which while wildly popular with the party membership, left the wider electorate unconvinced.  In an ironic inversion of Labour’s slogan “For the many, not the few”, the party’s appeal was “To the few, not the many”;  as Ed Balls observed on election night “getting the applause of thousands of party members is irrelevant if you do not also get the millions of votes you need to win the election and form a government”[1].

For any neutral observer, the question seems less complex.  It is one of the few cast-iron rules of British politics that the more socialist and further to the left the Labour party is, the less well they do.  For over 60 years Labour has swung between being broadly social democratic and more narrowly socialist, and every time it has turned left, as under Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Ed Milliband and most recently Jeremy Corbyn, it has been rejected by the electorate, usually very heavily.

And if the explanation is that simple, so would the solution seem to be.  Every time the Labour party returns to a more moderate centre-left stance, as under Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, it stands a much better chance of winning elections and forming a government.  And if they do not want to endure another long period in opposition, the first step on their road to recovery is probably therefore to elect a more moderate leader.

The challenge for the Labour party is that this is not a message the current leadership is remotely interested in hearing.  The hard left faction that currently controls the party prizes socialist purity above electability, and seems to prefer to have one of their own as leader and so in control of the party’s policies, even if it means not being in power, rather than a centre-left leader of a Labour government who could actually put some of the party’s policies into action. 

Their most immediate concern therefore is to ensure that Corbyn’s successor is also from the hard left, thus cementing their unexpected success when Corbyn was elected leader in 2015.  This is by no means certain, and perhaps explains why Corbyn has not immediately resigned following his defeat – he is now totally irrelevant on the national political stage, but he is still useful for the moment for those who control the party, as a place-holder while they work out how to engineer that the election of his successor goes the “correct” way.

The upcoming leadership election, and with it the fight for the soul of the party, promises to be vicious and unrestrained, perhaps on the scale of the internal strife the party suffered for much of the 1950s when Hugh Gaitskell battled to preserve the Labour party as a broad-church social democratic party against his more left wing and overtly socialist colleagues.  Much is at stake, and the outcome will decide whether the party is in opposition for just the next parliament or, as many in the party fear, considerably longer.

If the Labour party’s future direction is uncertain, then it is as nothing compared to the challenge facing the Liberal Democrats, for whom the question is whether they have any future at all.  We have commented before on the paradox that in a country where 48% of the electorate voted to stay in the EU, the one party with an unequivocally pro-EU stance gets nowhere and finds it impossible to turn that broad agreement with their beliefs into votes for their candidates.

Until recently, the party claimed that this was because they were not given a fair share of the limelight, and indeed when their leader, Jo Swinson, was excluded from some of the TV “leaders’ debates”, there was some truth in their complaint.  But as the election campaign went on, the party, its leader and its policies did receive more scrutiny, and the uncomfortable truth for the Liberal Democrats is that the more the electorate saw of them, the less impressed they were.

As a result, far from the breakthrough they hoped for and that Swinson predicted at their party conference in the autumn, they have if anything gone backwards.  They are little more than a footnote in the new House of Commons, with 11 MPs (one less than after the 2017 election), no leader, no future for their flagship pro-EU stance and not much prospect of influencing the national debate on anything else.  It may prove a struggle to persuade anyone either to join them or even in future to vote for them.

Less noticed on mainland Great Britain, but in our view no less significant, was the result in Northern Ireland.  Here the Democratic Unionist Party suffered a dramatic reverse, losing a fifth of their 10 MPs, including their leader at Westminster Nigel Dodds, and resulting in the Province returning more non-Unionist than Unionist MPs for the first time in its 97-year history. 

Equally striking, more than half the Northern Irish MPs now support a greater rapprochement with Dublin and Northern Ireland’s continuing membership of the EU’s Single Market.  And while this will have little immediate impact in Westminster, it is a sign that politics in the Province, which for so long has seemed stuck in the sectarian divide, is changing:   the DUP’s hard pro-Union, anti-EU stance is losing support, and eventual union with the Republic of Ireland is fast becoming a rather less unlikely prospect. 

For the other two Celtic nations, Wales and Scotland, the election was less dramatic.  In Wales the result largely mirrored that in England, with a continuance of the gradual haemorrhage of Labour votes and seats that has been a feature of elections in the Principality for 15 years now.  In Scotland, the result was an echo of 2015 when the Scottish National Party all but swept the board.  But the challenge for the SNP remains the same now as it did then:  calling a second referendum on Scottish Independence is not in their power, and not in the Conservative party’s plans.  The SNP faces five more years of power and mounting criticism at home, and impotence and mounting frustration at Westminster.

For the EU, the election outcome is a mixed blessing.  They have welcomed the fact that the outcome was decisive, and the clarity that this has brought.  The prospect of a return to the days of May, when it was not clear what her government wanted or whether, even if she did decide on something, she would be able to secure consent to it in the House of Commons, has evaporated.  And they will not be alone in being relieved at that.

But the size of Johnson’s victory, coupled with the state of the EU’s own internal politics, may mean that for Brussels, the pendulum will swing too far, as the previous dynamic of a divided, uncertain and incoherent British government facing a united and determined EU gives way to one where it is the British side that is united, energetic and determined and the EU’s previous unity and clarity of purpose under Donald Tusk and Michel Barnier comes under strain.  The diarchy of Macron and Merkel is waning, the EU’s new political leadership still needs to bed in and the new trade deal that Johnson will seek to agree with the EU will have many opportunities for EU member states to have different objectives and priorities, differences that Johnson will not be slow to exploit[2]

And so finally to the Conservatives.  While other parties face post-mortems and recriminations, Boris Johnson has no such problems.  The question of his leadership is answered – whatever anyone’s views on his personal life and morals, he has proved once again that he is a formidable winner of elections, and he has won the right to lead his party.  And almost entirely due to his energy, Brexit, the thorn in the flesh that proved beyond May, is definitively resolved:  the UK will definitely leave the EU in just under 7 weeks’ time, and whatever comes after, it will not seek to rejoin for a generation or more.

Far more importantly, the long 30-year civil war in the Tory party over Europe is now also definitively resolved.  Johnson leads a united party and future Conservative leaders will be spared the incessant in-fighting over Europe between the two wings of their party that Thatcher, Major, Cameron and May had to endure and that in the end cost all four their premiership. 

Johnson now stands in total control of his party and without serious opposition in the Commons or the country.   He has a wider and more diffuse base of electoral support than almost any other Conservative prime minister since the War, with votes and seats across the country and across the social divide.  He has MPs representing working class constituencies who will not let him ignore or forget their electorates, and a list of social issues that have been crying out for attention for too long. 

Johnson has made many promises, and faces the burden of exaggerated expectations.  But for a man whose personal instincts are more moderate than most people give him credence for – and who twice charmed the left-leaning city of London into electing him as their Mayor – this is an opportunity to govern from the centre-right as a true One-Nation Tory. 

How he responds to this challenge and what he does with his newfound power will shape his country for a generation, and possibly even beyond that.

[1]              On ITV’s election night programme, in a debate with Jon Lansman.  Balls, a minister in the last Labour government, is on the moderate wing of the Labour party; Lansman is the founder of Momentum and a leader of the party’s hard left faction.  It is fair to say they disagree pretty completely on just about every single aspect of the Labour party.

[2]               It is far from obvious, for example, that Estonia, which needs NATO’s support and British military assistance to fend of pressure from its Russian neighbour, has many interests in common with the likes of Spain, whose main interests are the recovery of sovereignty over Gibraltar and the right to go on (over) fishing in British waters.