Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street, December 13, 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)
Call him the Renaissance man, or what you will. Boris Johnson is not a polymath. But he is an educated and intelligent man with a talent basket that still throws up surprises. The results of the general election in the United Kingdom (UK) are not exactly a surprise, unless one is bound (and blinded) by one’s own prejudices. If there was an element of the unexpected, that would be the scale of Johnson’s victory. At the time of writing, the Conservative party had bagged 364 seats of the 650 in the House of Commons, an upswing of 47 from the last general election held in 2017. Labour, which had enjoyed an unexpected windfall in that same election, was down by 59 seats to 203. That’s bigger than any majority the UK has seen in years.
The Scale of BoJo’s Victory
David Cameron had brought the Tories back to power after 13 years with 306 seats and needed a coalition with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats (LibDem). Cameron, a fantastic economic performer, returned with 330 in 2015, vanquishing Ed Miliband and his Labour—an outcome that would unfold an altogether new chapter in the history of the Labour party and Britain. In 2017, Theresa May’s hastily called and ill-judged election saw the Tories take a beating and lose their majority, falling to 317 seats. And an extremist Labour (for whom Ed wasn’t Red enough), under Jeremy Corbyn, gained 30. Corbyn, of course, had (in)famously refused to depart after the July 2016 Brexit referendum, unlike Cameron (who had urged him in Parliament to leave Labour’s leadership with the words ‘For heaven’s sake man, go!’). And in June 2017, he was an unlikely hero for the party he had already, largely, undone and remade in his own image.
Johnson, who has roared back to a Downing Street he never left, isn’t expected to herald a renaissance on the British Isles—no matter how much they might need one—but he has succeeded where other Tory stalwarts had failed. In the 2019 general election the Tories have claimed scalps all over the place, perhaps most remarkably in Wales where they have felled giants and got their first three women MPs. The blue on the political map of Scotland is once again visible (in the north) despite the Scottish National Party (SNP) claiming a landslide with a gain of 13 seats from the 2017 slump and threatening a second referendum on independence. Bodies have dropped all along the way. LibDem leader Jo Swinson lost her seat (to the SNP) and is stepping down. But Johnson’s biggest scalp of all is Jeremy Corbyn, who has announced that he will not lead Labour at the “next election” after the party suffered its worst defeat in years, falling well below Miliband’s 232 in 2015.
All Roads Lead to Brexit (Or the Angry Old Voter)
Boris Johnson, who hasn’t yet completed a half-year as Prime Minister, had made a gamble and he has won bigger than even most Tories’ expected. Johnson had fought the election with a single demand—a mandate for him to deliver Brexit without further delay; without further embarrassment for the party, Parliament and people; without further reneging on promises made to those who voted for Britain to leave the European Union (EU) three-and-a-half years ago.
The British electorate has given him that mandate now, and more. This wouldn’t have been possible without certain fundamental realignments on the voting map of the UK. Towns and communities populated by the old (in most cases, in terms of age too) British working class, for most of whom the Conservative party was anathema till the other day, voted much the same way they did in the Brexit referendum when the absence of a party-based poll had allowed them to look beyond the parties themselves. In July 2016, they had vented their opinion. Thereafter, they had relapsed into silence and watched the urban-elite circus in the big city and elsewhere, such as Parliament, which steadily diluted that vote and its objectives. They had been called names. Their lack of education and ‘understanding’ of ‘how the world works’ was mocked. That mockery didn’t fall short of a demand for a second referendum since the ignorant didn’t know what they were doing.
What Boris Johnson gave the original voters for Brexit was a second chance. To convert their increasing sense of despair into anger and give everybody else the boot.
In the end, this traditionally Labour vote gave Johnson his majority. It also decimated Labour which not only vacillated on Brexit but also played a leading role in ensuring that Brexit hadn’t happened till date, well past the original deadline of March 2019. It has also given Johnson a free hand to appoint a new cabinet apart from reinvigorated bench support in Parliament. They will vote his Brexit bill through and get the UK out of the continental bloc after a close association of almost 40-odd years. In other words, Johnson can lay to rest not only Corbyn’s Labour but also the ghost of the Theresa May premiership.
The Cycle of Challenges Continues
London is a bubble. You may get everything on god’s good earth there but Britannia will elude you. For, her spirit—though not now that strength which in old days moved waves and ruled nations—resides with her people. And they have not lived in London in years.
Johnson has won. And he will get Brexit delivered unless heaven and earth move. But he will have a horde of new MPs and newly gained electorates to please and, in time, appease. As noted above, much of this new Tory vote has not been its own for decades and may well depart post-Brexit.
None of that takes away either from the technicalities involved in delivering Brexit—details Johnson has remained uncomfortably (for both Leavers and Remainers) vague about. Above all, Johnson will have to invoke the ghost of quite a few of his illustrious predecessors, and perhaps one in particular, to build not so much a new world order but a new living and working space for Britain in the world as is. That involves a gamut of new, individual trade treaties with states and trading blocs, taxation regimes, and a new economic and political relationship with the EU, to name a few. None of the above will be easy. All of it will take time.
Closer home, a reinvigorated SNP will push for a second referendum on Scottish independence—and if it succeeds in getting one, there may remain nothing united about the kingdom thereafter. It is just as well that Johnson doesn’t need any help from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). In Northern Ireland (NI), the DUP’s Nigel Dodds has lost to Sinn Féin, although both major NI parties have bled votes.
Johnson will also have to use his re-established political credibility, which has never been sounder, to deal with all matters of day-to-day governance, investing a large portion of his authority in, say, policing and making Britain’s cities safe again. That may need a reversal of cuts in police spending effected by his own government recently but would be in keeping with promises he has made. From knife attacks to bigger incidents of terror, the sense of security on the city street has been steadily shattered for a few years now. It is a blooming security crisis that post facto military deployment and national emergencies cannot solve. It needs a rebuilding of the security and policing apparatus from the ground upwards.
While Britain has been called broken ever since its voting majority decided to say goodbye again to a continent the country had never really felt comfortable with or desired to genuinely belong to, the saddest story on the British Isles since mid-2015 has been that of the Labour party.
In picking a backbencher as its leader, Labour didn’t know what it was unleashing. That Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t just another opinionated non-entity. It learnt its lesson soon but by then it was no longer the same party. Forget Tony Blair’s New Labour, the extremism of ideas and intent championed by Jeremy Corbyn and those beholden to him (whom he had given membership to and promoted at the expense—and sacrifice—of more experienced and mainstream members and even former ministers) would have unmade Britain in ways perhaps not imaginable even on the eve of the December 12th election. And that wasn’t just about the spectre of nationalisation of business and industry or taxing of billionaires.
Even before Corbyn became a real Downing Street aspirant, the party remade by him was making headlines with some of its members’ evidently anti-Semitic pronouncements. The Tories as well as whatever was left of New Labour and even some survivors from the real Old Labour called Corbyn out publicly for encouraging this trend. It didn’t help that Labour’s alleged anti-Semitism coincided with the rising tide of anti-Semitism across Europe and attacks on Jews on the continent as well as in Britain. Given Corbyn’s career-long hostile attitude towards Israel and his reported proximity with leaders of outfits like Hamas, critics saw substance in the charges of anti-Semitism levelled at him.
Labour has to not only look beyond Corbyn now but also take a long hard look at itself in the mirror. If the party wants to survive, and continue as a mainstream and major political force, it has to reinvent itself. That will mean much more than merely undoing what was done to it after Tony Blair.
For now, Boris owns the room and everything in it.