Brexit is the “irrefutable, irresistible, unarguable decision of the British people,” declared Boris Johnson in the wake of his emphatic election victory. ‘Get Brexit Done’ was the campaign slogan of his Conservative Party — and it delivered.
Three and a half years after the referendum in which voters decided to leave the European Union, many were fed up with the delay, division and confusion which shrouded British politics. Mr. Johnson now has an 80-seat majority in Parliament — a very comfortable margin which means he will be able to deliver on his pledge to take Britain out of the EU at the end of January. The Conservatives have won on a scale last seen in the Thatcher era of the 1980s. On the other hand, the opposition Labour Party has endured a truly awful result — its worst election performance since the 1930s. In spite of the drift of the two main parties to what were once the margins of mainstream politics, the smaller parties, with the conspicuous exception of the Scottish nationalists, have made little impact. The election exposed, in the words of the leading historian Peter Hennessy, the “howling void” in the centre ground of British politics.
Moving from left to right
Drilling down into the detailed pattern of voting, the crucial seats which swung from Labour to Conservative were in the post-industrial north and midlands of England. These are sometimes described as ‘left behind’ areas, where many of the skilled blue-collar jobs have gone and the high streets are blighted by closed shops and empty business premises. Voters in these towns and cities tilted the outcome of the EU referendum towards ‘leave’ in 2016 and they have now once again made the political weather.
The Conservatives’ share of the vote has increased only slightly since the last general election in 2017, which delivered a hung Parliament. The Labour vote, however, has fallen sharply; in many of their one-time heartlands, working class voters put their desire to get out of Europe ahead of their long-standing party loyalty. The shape of British politics has changed — and in England outside London, the Conservatives now have twice as many MPs as Labour.
For many voters, questions remain about Mr. Johnson’s character and his leadership qualities. He is seen as a political chameleon, unscrupulous and with a messy personal life — but in his five months as prime minister he has also appeared confident and decisive. Against expectations, he managed to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU to meet concerns of his party’s Eurosceptic wing. That more or less ruled out the prospect of a chaotic ‘no deal’ break with the EU and so made Brexit more palatable to many who would rather Britain remains part of Europe.
By pledging to pump more money into the state-run National Health Service, Mr. Johnson underlined an end to the policy of austerity which has starved public services of funding. That also helped the Conservatives make gains in hitherto safe Labour seats.
Mistrust of Corbyn
Mr. Johnson’s key advantage, however, was the widespread mistrust of Labour’s hard left leader, Jeremy Corbyn. He was widely seen as an extremist who has failed to tackle pockets of anti-semitism within his own party, made profligate promises about increases in public spending and, the key point, failed to convince voters that he had the potential to be prime minister. Across the country, Labour candidates and campaigners encountered on the doorsteps former Labour voters who said: “I don’t trust Corbyn and I don’t want him leading this country”.
Mr. Corbyn has expressed his deep disappointment at the result and said he will stand down as party leader — but not immediately. The blame game between centrists and leftists within the party has already erupted and the battle to succeed Corbyn is certain to be angry and divisive. The option of a progressive alliance bringing together Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and perhaps Scottish and Welsh nationalists has been much talked about — but appears as remote as ever.
This election has seen the Conservatives reshape into a more right-wing, populist, nationalist party, reflecting a global trend evident in the U.S., Brazil and India. There has also been a transformation of a very different kind within Labour. For the first time, there will be more women Labour MPs than men — remarkable for the only major British party which has never been led by a woman.
Mr. Johnson is not the only winner to emerge from Thursday’s election. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), has also seen her position strengthened. The SNP, which is pro-independence and pro-EU, has confirmed its dominance of Scottish politics. And that means talk of another referendum will persist — a referendum not about Brexit but on Scottish independence.
Another sign of a potential break-up of the U.K. emerged in Northern Ireland which for the first time has elected more nationalist MPs, sympathetic to a united Ireland, than unionists who want the province to remain British. That’s another headache for Mr. Johnson.
The prime minister’s priority though will be to see through Britain’s formal departure from the EU at the end of January. There will be a transition period until the end of 2020 when Britain will abide by EU rules and regulations but will not be part of the Union. During that time, Britain will aim to negotiate the details of an enduring trading relationship with its principal commercial partners in Europe. That will be a huge task and is likely to be marked by rows and recriminations. If voters think that Brexit is now behind them, they may be in for a rude surprise. The Conservatives will also seek bespoke trade deals with countries outside the EU, the most important being with the U.S. President Trump, who has with customary ebullience declared his staunch support for Brexit, may well prove to be a tough negotiator, as he has with the Chinese.
Economic forecasters believe that Brexit will impede economic growth, perhaps even triggering a brief recession. That would make it more difficult for the Conservative government to deliver on its promise of greater public spending.
There is another more intangible issue which Mr. Johnson will have to address. For the past few years, Brexit has polarised British politics, fractured relationships, and soured public debate. Britain is wounded. Its prime minister has in the past proved to be a divisive figure who has sought to fan the flames of populism and nationalism to gain political advantage. Can he now move away from his theatrical rhetoric and provide a healing balm for his bruised nation? Mr. Johnson said outside Downing Street on Friday that it’s time to “let the healing begin”. Let’s hope so — unlikely as it seems.
Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC Political and India correspondent and is a visiting professor at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai