Generally it is safer not to pick elections. Increasingly polling seems to be unreliable, and growing numbers of undecided voters make their minds up on polling day. I would certainly not put a prediction in writing prior to an election. That said, on the eve of the UK general election when I wrote my blog post about Brexit, when going through the numbers it was hard not to draw certain conclusions.
The election was about Brexit. The reason the election was called was because parliament had been stuck for over 2 years in Brexit paralysis. It feels like Brexit has been the only thing on the agenda in Westminster for the entire term of the last parliament – meaning governments have no time to get anything done. But why did Brexit help the Tories?
Britain, and in particular England is a conservative (small c) country. The UK Conservative Party have spent 68 of the last 100 years in government. As the worlds 6th largest economy, it is logical that a conservative message of keeping things as they are tends to resonate.
But 2019 was no ordinary election. And Boris Johnson is not leading an ordinary Conservative Party.
After a decade in office the Party started 2019 in a pretty bad state. The Tories record in office left a lot to be desired, and voters were clearly fed up. In EU elections in 2019 saw the Conservative vote dip below 10%. How on earth did the Party go from that, to their best result in a general election since 1987 in 6 months?
Days after Boris replaced Theresa May as Conservative leader and MP, I blogged that Boris knew how to tap into people’s hopes and fears. Privately I recall telling people that I thought Boris Johnson would either perform brilliantly or be a disaster. During the election campaign we saw signs of both of these things occurring. From inaction on flooding in the north, hiding in a fridge to avoid the media, being laughed at in leaders debates when asked about telling the truth or refusing to be interviewed by Andrew Neil there plenty of disasters in the Boris Johnson campaign. But on the main issue of the election, he judged the public mood correctly. And due to this, The Conservative Party won.
On the eve of the election when I was writing about the Brexit referendum, some numbers really stuck out for me. Firstly, 84% of UK voters live in England. In the main, England is where elections and referendums are won or lost. In the 2016 referendum, the strongest support for Brexit was in England. When you look at the map of how people voted in 2016, England outside of London voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. While this included traditional Tory strongholds in rural England, it also included traditionally Labour voting areas in the Midlands and The North of England. When you look at the total UK voting stats 52% of voters opted to leave the EU compared with 48% voting to remain in 2016. Unless there had been a radical shift in public opinion, it was hard to see how a Remain Alliance would succeed.
Boris Johnson from the day he announced he would run for the Tory leadership said getting Brexit done was his top priority. But he faced the same issue that Theresa May faced before him. The Conservatives did not have a majority so relied on the DUP, who would not agree to any withdrawal agreement. Further, many Tory MPs did all they could to block a no deal Brexit. Boris himself of course had voted against Theresa May’s withdrawal deal, and resigned as Foreign Secretary in 2018 so he could publicly oppose it. As PM, he now faced the same threat of Tory MPs rebelling against him on Brexit.
One of the defining moments of Boris Johnson’s premiership to-date was when he removed the whip from 21 Conservative MPs. These MPs had supported a bill in parliament making a no deal Brexit it illegal. These MPs included then Father of the House and former Cabinet Minister Kenneth Clarke, Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond and Winston Churchill’s Grandson Sir Nicholas Soames. Shortly after these MPs lost the whip, Amber Rudd quit the cabinet and resigned the Tory Whip in protest.
This move by Boris Johnson was seen by many as callous, brutal and utterly mad. In retrospect, this now can be seen as a decisive act which strengthened Boris Johnson’s leadership considerably. In doing this, Boris Johnson showed that the Conservatives had become the Party of Brexit. Remain Tories like Ken Clarke represented who had been the mainstream of the Party from the 1970s through to 2016. In one fell swoop Boris Johnson has cut that wing of the party loose.
Boris Johnson could now go to the country and say if you give us a majority, we’ll get Brexit done. Whereas in 2017 both the Tories and Labour were divided on the Brexit issue, now Boris could say with authority that the Conservatives were the Party of Brexit. In a country that had been stuck in Brexit paralysis since 2016, he could go into an election promising to get it done and enact the 2016 referendum result.
There were of course other issues and factors that played into this election. My next post will look at why Labour lost and some of the issues around that. But again, much of this was to do with Brexit. The overwhelming majority of constituencies that switched from Labour to Conservatives were leave voting ones. The Conservative Party campaign deliberately targeted the North of England and the Midlands during the election, with the key message of getting Brexit done. It worked.
Ironically, another factors helped the Conservatives win in 2019 was Labour’s 2017 manifesto. The sudden surge in support for Labour in 2017 after its policies were released took the political establishment by surprise. Since then the Conservatives have been forced to respond to this, but increasing funding to the NHS, reversing policing cuts made by the Tories in their first two terms of office and other social spending increases.
During the election Boris Johnson promised to increase the minimum wage to £10, a promise made by Labour in the 2017 campaign. The Conservatives promised to increase police numbers by 20,000 – having cut them by 21,000 earlier. And while the Conservatives promise to build 40 new hospitals and to employ 50,000 new nurses were largely spin and don’t stand up to scrutiny, the optics worked for the Tories.
The real genius of the campaign was the way Boris Johnson managed to escape being dragged down by the Tories last decade in office. Boris played on the fact that he was a new Prime Minister and claimed that this was a new government. Given he has been a senior minister previously, how did he pull this off? His reputation for speaking his mind, and openly criticising Theresa May’s administration after resigning in 2018 had given him distance from that administration. Also, kicking out 21 remain MPs – including the former Chancellor of the Exchequer meant he could distance the government from its previous actions. That, and reading the mood of the nation correctly about Brexit, won Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party the election.
What next for the Conservatives? In the short term it will be relatively plain sailing for a bit. The Withdrawal agreement will pass. The size of the parliamentary majority will mean the government won’t have the problems both May and Cameron had of relying on other party’s for support. But as always in politics, clouds are gathering on the horizon. The government will still need to negotiate the ongoing relationship with the EU, and the 12 month deadline to do this set by the Conservatives is seen by many as unrealistic. The risk of no deal with Europe at the end of 2020 has already caused the pound to drop, reversing its rise the day after the election result.
Brexit will continue to dominate UK politics for the next 5 years. The Conservatives have MPs from poorer deprived communities in England and Wales, who have expectations that Brexit will bring positive changes. This puts pressure on the government to deliver. If things go wrong, the Conservatives won’t have anyone else to blame. And if Brexit goes ok, there are a number of domestic issues like Knife Crime, homelessness, under resourcing of the NHS, demands for increases to education funding and the need for increased financial support for services provided by local government. Not to mention the climate crisis that the whole planet faces.
The UK remains very divided. Calls for a united Ireland and an independent Scotland continue to grow and have the potential to destabilise UK politics. I will do another post about the election results in Northern Ireland and Scotland exploring these further. The government may find it challenging to hold the UK together, especially post Brexit.
This is not an easy time to be in power. For Boris Johnson and his government, the hard work is yet to come. They may have the numbers in parliament now, but as John Major learnt after winning the 1992 election, things can still go very wrong.