Boris Johnson outside
10 Downing Street, London, December 13, 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)
BRITISH POLITICS has been half-crazed for some time—but the results of the election held on December 12th might suggest the country has gone properly insane. Or how else to explain the fact that, after three-and-a-half years of debilitating politics and increasing economic pain, following the country’s narrow vote to leave the European Union, British voters have just rewarded the main Conservative architect of that chaos, Boris Johnson, with his party’s biggest parliamentary majority in over 30 years? The Tories won an additional 48 seats, mostly from the main-opposition Labour Party, which had its worst result since 1935. This dramatic verdict was despite the fact that both Johnson and Brexit—the single issue on which he campaigned: “Get Brexit done!” was his slogan—are decidedly unpopular. Polls suggest that, if the Brexit referendum were rerun today, Britons would vote to stay in the European Union by a nine-point majority. How was this election result possible?
For students of chaos theory, the explanation for the madness starts on September 25th, 2010, with the narrow and surprising election of Ed Miliband as Labour’s leader. Miliband’s elder brother David, a well-regarded moderate and former foreign secretary with proven leadership qualities, had been expected to take over the party helm. The fact that he was pipped to the post by his younger brother—by merely 1 per cent of the vote—instead gave Labour a weak leader, determined to move the party to the left, from which position Ed Miliband duly led Labour to a crushing electoral defeat. Worse, before exiting the scene of his failure, he radically changed the way Labour elects its leaders. Henceforth, they were to be chosen mainly by party members—which is to say, by anyone willing to pay a £3 membership fee—not the party establishment.
This ill-considered change made it possible for well-organised fringe groups to capture the leadership election process—which duly happened. Labour replaced the decent, cerebral, but easily ridiculed, Miliband with Jeremy Corbyn. As a prime ministerial contender, he was an actual joke. A veteran of 32 undistinguished years in the House of Commons, Corbyn is a conspiracy theorist and unreconstructed Marxist. He has a long history of supporting left-wing cranks and terrorist outfits, such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Irish Republican groups with links to the murderous Irish Republican Army (IRA). He would ideally like to scrap the monarchy and appears not to approve of much in British history. Though personally courteous, he is indecisive and brittle when attacked. He is reputed, by those who have worked alongside him for decades, not to be very bright.
The notion that Corbyn could lead Labour to victory seemed preposterous from the start. Britain is a patriotic and culturally conservative country. It is not a coincidence that Tony Blair, who pitched the party to the right of the Tories on law and order and otherwise in the centre, is the only Labour leader to have won a parliamentary majority in half-a-century. Yet, heading into this month’s election, it at least seemed possible to imagine Labour and other opposition parties doing well enough to deny the Tories a majority—because Johnson and his governing party are also unpopular.
Having governed for a decade, they have accrued a record which has something for everyone to hate. The austerity programme introduced by the first Tory Prime Minister of that period, David Cameron, is especially unpopular. But the main reason for their poor standing with voters is the monumental hash the Tories have made of implementing Brexit—which is also why Britons are starting to turn against it. Johnson claims this failure owes to his and the previous Tory government having been frustrated by an unrepentant pro-EU lobby inside and outside the party. This is not entirely true; he and other Brexiteers are equally responsible for blocking the pragmatic Brexit terms negotiated by his predecessor, Theresa May. Rather, the fundamental source of the Tories’ failure to negotiate and implement Britain’s exit from the EU is that the shiny promises made by Brexiteers have turned out, on their first brush with reality, not to be achievable.
The EU was never, as some Brexiteers predicted, going to forgive Britain the £32 billion it will owe the Union post-Brexit. Nor was it going to offer Britain all the benefits of EU membership—including unfettered access to the single market—after it stopped paying the costs of membership. And Commonwealth countries such as India are not, contrary to Brexiteer predictions, lining up to offer Britain better trade terms than it has with them currently through its EU membership. The Tories’ struggles to implement Brexit have been largely caused by their unwillingness to face up to these truths. And though Johnson has made a little more progress than his predecessor, in that he has got Parliament to approve a revised version of May’s deal, it has not made him loved. The Prime Minister is a watchword in British politics for mendacity. When Johnson said the “truth matters” during a pre-election debate, the studio audience laughed at him. (Fittingly, his revised Brexit deal involved him breaking a promise not to accept different customs arrangements for Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This threatens to draw a tacit border down the Irish Sea—making Northen Ireland’s eventual departure from the UK more likely.)
The fact that Labour and its voters are also internally divided over Brexit made matters worse for Corbyn. Like many centre-left parties, Labour has become an uneasy coalition of working-class and metropolitan liberal voters. The former, congregated in the hardscrabble post-industrial cities of northern England and the Midlands, are mostly for Brexit; the second, concentrated in London and the southeast, are passionately against it. Hence, Corbyn attempted to appease them all by avoiding taking a clear position on the biggest issue Britain faces. He said a Labour government would offer voters a second referendum on their decision to leave the EU, but that he would take no position on it—a stance that appears to have united Labour voters in nothing but disdain.
THE EXTENT TO which the pro-EU ‘Remain’ vote was split, principally among Labour, the Liberal Democrats (LibDem) and the Scottish National Party (SNP), was another problem the opposition parties faced. By contrast, a decision by the populist Brexit Party not to stand against Brexiteer Tories meant the Tories were able to unite the ‘Leave vote’. Yet, the biggest problem for Labour, and by extension the anti-Brexit movement broadly, was its leader. Ahead of the vote, Labour MPs campaigning across the party’s traditional strongholds were told by lifelong Labour voters that they could not vote for a Marxist apologist for the IRA.
And so it turned out. From north Wales in the west, through Yorkshire, to East Anglia, Labour’s erstwhile ‘red wall’ of safe seats crumbled to the Tories. That included historic seats such as Rother Valley, in South Yorkshire, which had voted Labour since its creation in 1918—and Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire, which was last held by the Tories in 1885. The notion that such seats could go Conservative had seemed preposterous: there is no more dramatic indicator of the upheaval in British politics than that they have now done so.
The splitting of the pro-Remain vote ensured that the Liberal Democrats also had a wretched election. Britain’s most Europhile party increased its vote-share by over 4 per cent, but, because it was spread hopeless thin across the country, won a paltry 11 seats. The LibDem leader, Jo Swinson, lost her East Dunbartonshire seat.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, meanwhile, nationalists rose on the back of the Tories’ and Brexit’s unpopularity. The SNP now holds 48 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. Northern Ireland now has more nationalist and republican members of Parliament than unionists, following a couple of embarrassing losses for the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP’s deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, lost his North Belfast seat.
All elections have consequences, as the old saw goes—yet the implications of this vote, for Britain and beyond, will be unusually profound. Most obviously, it has allayed any doubt about whether Brexit will actually happen. Johnson will now complete the task of forcing his withdrawal agreement through parliament by January 31st—the latest deadline for Britain’s formal EU exit. For the ensuing year, nothing much will change: Britain will have entered a transition period during which its membership rights and obligations will more or less continue. What comes after that is much less certain. Johnson has said the transition phase must end by December 2020—and even threatened to pass legislation to that effect. Yet, the transition period is designed for a good reason: to prevent Brexit leading to the imposition of new trade barriers, and the consequent costs and disruption that would entail, while Britain and the EU negotiate a trade agreement. And negotiating such agreements generally takes years, not months.
Some suspect Johnson, strengthened by his bumper majority, will end up compromising on that threat, and on his hardline Brexiteering generally. The Prime Minister is an opportunist masquerading as an ideologue. Yet it seems equally possible that, having surged to victory on a promise to “Get Brexit Done”, he will fear any such compromise would lead to his defeat. It should also be noted that the terms of Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, which will see Britain leave both the EU’s customs union and single market, are already much harder, and therefore more disruptive, than the Brexit camp once promised. Despite much continuing uncertainty about Britain’s future outside the EU, in short, the country is sure to face a hard reckoning with its decision to distance itself from its biggest trading partner.
The election results have also transformed the complexion of Johnson’s party. Once patrician, pragmatic and mainly concentrated in the affluent south of the country, the Conservatives’ parliamentary cohort now looks far more northern and working-class. Johnson has already declared that retaining the support of this new constituency will be his highest priority. He is expected to launch a major, debt-fuelled, investment spree in the post-industrial Midlands and north. Though personally liberal and supremely cosmopolitan, he is also unlikely to abandon the nativist posturing that also helped move the former Labour voters to his party. Britain’s immigration policies will continue to get more hardline and restrictionist.
How durable this realignment of British politics turns out to be will also depend on Labour. The party could not have been given a clearer signal by the electorate. When it moves to the left, it loses. When it appoints crackpot leaders, it gets thumped. Only by returning to the centre ground can Labour hope to recover its losses. Yet this may not happen soon—not while the leadership election rules that gave the party Corbyn remain in place. And he and his socialist cabal have shown no signs of allowing them to be revised. Corbyn, who insists that Brexit alone is responsible for the catastrophe his party has just suffered, has said he will stand aside, but not when. And he and his allies are meanwhile taking steps to ensure a likeminded socialist takes over from him. If they succeed, Britain can probably look forward to another decade of Tory rule under Johnson.
The election has guaranteed at least a limited breakup of the EU. Yet its most significant consequence may be the breakup of the UK. The imposition of customs arrangements between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is liable to speed its economic alignment with the Republic of Ireland and weaken the case for unionism. And in Scotland, the nationalist cause has been even more obviously advanced. Scotland voted by a hefty 62 per cent to remain in the EU; only Scottish independence could now make that possible. The SNP, which exists to bring about that end, says this represents an unanswerable case for a rerun of the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. And if that happens, the outcome would be highly uncertain; opinion polling suggests Scottish public opinion is now evenly divided on the issue.
Johnson, who has the power to grant or deny the SNP its demand for an independence referendum, says he is against it. The 2014 vote, he points out, was supposed to be a “once in a generation” exercise. Yet, he may calculate that being seen to deny the Scottish public will in this way would make a vote for independence, sooner or later, even more likely. Either way, it has become extremely hard to be optimistic about the UK’s prospects of holding together.