JUST after his victory in the Tory leadership contest last July, I suggested five tests by which we might judge whether Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would delight or disappoint us. Then, just before the December 12 general election, I tentatively assessed his performance, against each test and overall.
However, the largely unexpected scale of the Tory election victory – net gain of 48 seats, largest overall majority (80) since 1987, and breach of Labour’s Red Wall in the Midlands, Wales and the North – has changed the rules of this particular game. The markedly altered characteristics of the new Conservative electorate which this produced mean that the key benchmarks for Boris in the new Parliament have to become more robust.
Unlike most general elections, last month’s was arguably seismic, on a par with those of 1945 and 1979 for the way in which it represented a shifting of the political tectonic plates, rather than just a normal swing of the pendulum of volatile public opinion.
Millions of working-class people who previously had always voted Labour, either from a combination of family and community habit stretching back generations or from tribal loyalty, abandoned the party and voted instead for a wealthy, privileged, Old Etonian Tory toff.
The awareness that one of the most momentous electoral upheavals in many decades was taking place crystallised in the early hours of Friday, December 13, as former bastions of Labour voting in the Red Wall were demolished, and swathes of the map of England’s Midlands and North turned from red to blue. This was not so much an election as an earthquake, just as The Daily Telegraph’s Sherelle Jacobs predicted in advance on BBC Question Time.
The data tells the story. Former rock-solid Labour mining-area seats such as Bishop Auckland, Redcar, or Blyth Valley went Tory for the first time in many decades, in some cases in almost a century, often with double-digit swings. Twenty-four Labour heartland seats voted Tory for the first time ever.
Labour lost votes in no fewer than 616 seats: The biggest swings came in those where the Leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum exceeded 60 per cent (an intriguing symmetry with the fact that 60 per cent of all seats held by Labour in 2016 voted for Brexit).
Labour’s performance was actually worse than in 1983 under Michael Foot: Then, it at least retained seats and thus a presence in Scotland, whereas now it is as good as wiped out north of the Border. Overall, it was Labour’s worst performance since 1935.
The commentaries are no less persuasive. Working-class voters abandoned Labour primarily because they recoiled from what it has become: A party almost exclusively of the relatively-affluent woke metropolitan ‘liberal’-Left in university towns, and of the welfare-state dependent poor in inner cities. The party’s Leftists’ scorn for working-class attachment to patriotism and democracy, damning it as ‘far-Right’ and ‘racist’, got its just deserts.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic, though. The Tory vote suffered considerable attrition across Remain-voting areas. They lost votes in no fewer than 254 seats, and actually lost their seats in Putney (to Labour) and Richmond Park (to the LibDems)
Furthermore, although Corbyn was emphatically rejected by the voters, that isn’t necessarily also true of some aspects of Corbynism. As some of the more thoughful and less euphoric analyses reminded us, some of Corbynite Labour’s policies, such as rail and water-supply nationalisation, or enhancement of workers’ rights, are still popular.
And, against the background of a Tory Party which has for years shied away from making the classical-liberal case for consumer capitalism and free markets, Corbyn’s ostensibly bizarre claim that Labour had partially ‘won the argument’ can’t just be dismissed out of hand.
If I seem to have covered this at length, it’s to try to emphasise the extent of the quite dramatic and psephologically significant change which December 12, 2019 produced in the Tory electorate. As commentators observed, this election really did represent a major political realignment.
With anti-Brexit Tory votes in the richer southern territory of Remainia leaking away to either the LibDems or (presumably) the Greens, but replaced by working-class pro-Brexit votes in the poorer Midlands and North, it’s partly as if there’s been almost the political equivalent of a reverse takeover.
In summary, the Tories’ new electorate for the 2020-2024/5 parliament is older, less affluent, more blue-collar, more northern, less university-‘educated’ (?indoctrinated?), more economically statist and collectivist, but also more socially and culturally small-c conservative, than at any time in living memory. It’s also, particularly, much more pro-Brexit than was its previous iteration during either of the 2015-2017 or 2017-2019 parliaments.
But their votes can’t be assumed as a given. Their future support is not guaranteed, but conditional on Boris’s government delivering what he pledged in order to get them to cast their votes for the Tories, many after breaking the habit of a lifetime.
To be fair, Boris did himself acknowledge this in his victory speech, when he thanked first-time Tory voters for lending him their votes, vowed never to take them for granted, and admitted that the votes would have to be re-earned.
Assuming Boris not only wants, but actually needs, to retain that new voter base through Brexit up to the next election and beyond, some of what he will have to do to achieve that goal may well jar with the fundamentally metropolitan, cosmopolitan, ‘liberal’-Conservative instincts of both himself and his party’s more historic supporters: Especially those acquired in its Cameroon ‘modernisation’ phase, some of whose promoters are still prominent in the party’s hierarchy.
So with that in mind, what are the revised benchmarks against which his government’s performance in the two policy areas most critical, not only to his securing all those working-class ex-Labour votes but also retaining them with the consequent likelihood of obtaining a second term, might depend?
First, Brexit. An ultra-soft or fake Brexit will now be a vote-loser. Any residual Brexit-sceptical Tory MPs from the last two parliaments must therefore be told in no uncertain terms that if they attempt to block or dilute it, the voters will soon send them off to join Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve et al in well-deserved obscurity.
However, differences between the South, where Brexit tended to be seen more as a transactional, economic issue, and the Midlands and the North, for whom it tended to be more about sovereignty, democracy, culture, identity and immigration, could create tensions among the Tories’ new electorate.
Specifically, if the more friction-free trade with the EU Boris wants, then the more closely aligned with the EU legally, plus on issues such as external tariffs, business regulation and product standards, he will be pressured to stay, by both big-business vested interests and closet Rejoiners alike.
So Boris must be seen to deliver a visibly unequivocal and irreversible severance from the EU on January 31. He must robustly stand up for Britain’s interests in the subsequent trade talks, eschewing any material concessions and maintaining his position of no extension of the transition period beyond December 31, even if that means walking away without a deal and reverting to WTO terms. If not, his newly-recruited electorate will evaporate.
Second, immigration. As the ones who’ve most experienced its downsides, the new Boris-electorate from the Midlands and the North is likely to place a higher priority on controlling and reducing the scale of inward migration than the Tories have hitherto either done, or even been inclined to do.
Underlining their failure – despite their many past promises – to reduce numbers, in only the last few days a 600 per cent increase in the number of migrants crossing the English Channel in 2019 has been reported, with special packs even being handed out to illegal migrants by their people-traffickers, advising them how to ensure they get ‘rescued’ by Border Force vessels and ferried to Britain.
Boris will have to adopt the rumoured Dominic Cummings plans to transfer responsibility for immigration and border security away from the Home Office to a separate ministry, and then give it both a robust mandate and the powers and resources to enforce it.
Simultaneously, he will have to move quickly to introduce his promised Australian-style points system for determining immigration eligibilty, allied to ruling out any continuation of free movement from the EU in the negotiations for the UK’s future trading relationship with it.
However, as regular TCW contributor Migration Watch’s Alp Mehmet recently pointed out, considerable potential exists for Boris’ pledges to be diluted or even abandoned altogether, whether by bueaucratic sleight-of-hand or (again) pressure from big-business vested interests. If so, the Tories’ newly-acquired voters will melt away.
Were that to happen, it would affect not only the fortunes of the Conservative Party, but arguably those of British democracy itself. Having been betrayed, as they would see it, by both main parties, the likelihood is that those voters would either disengage completely from politics, or alternatively find other less democratic and rougher means of making their voices heard.
Boris Johnson now has an opportunity given to very few Prime Ministers to bring about lasting change to British politics. He must seize it with both hands.