After years of uncertainty for the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson is the undisputed Prime Minister.
Overnight both the character of British politics and the geographical foundations on which it rests, have dramatically changed.
Firstly, in place of hung parliaments, divided parties and unstable leaders that we have become accustomed to over the last decade, the country now has a strong majority government. Boris Johnson sits as PM, in charge of a changed political landscape, and in control of his own party. The election result has also answered the key Brexit question, the cause of so much instability for so long. In practice, this will mean a speedy passage of his Brexit deal, ending the question of whether Brexit will happen, and most likely sucking much energy out of the European debate.
Despite the indubitable result, many questions remain
Victory for the Conservative Party across history rests on its unique ability to adjust to the changing electorate, and Boris Johnson has added yet another chapter to this story. Now perhaps for the first time since WW2, it is credible to claim the Tories as the party of the North. From a toxic cocktail of Brexit betrayal and doubts over Corbyn’s leadership, Johnson has won places of industry, Redcar and Scunthorpe, Wales (Wrexham hasn’t voted Tory since 1935) and places like Blyth Valley and Workington — the latter with a swing of nearly 10 per cent. These are all Labour heartlands. All of which were betrayed by the party’s ambivalent and then pro-second referendum stance. Labour used to talk the language of these towns, have a cabinet filled with its people, be proud of national patriotism; but now, it has a cabinet centred around London, it has become more concerned with the identity politics of the left, and it has transformed into a party of middle class liberal cities.
In the space of twenty minutes last night, Labour lost Wrexham and Leigh (first Conservative victory since 1922 in the seat) whilst also gaining Putney — a perfect reflection of what has become a betrayal of its northern and midland heartlands — culminating in a complete transformation of the political map. Throwing away years of familial and emotional loyalty and attachment to the Labour Party, previously relied upon Labour voters have shown that even some of the hardest and most longstanding political dividing lines, can be redrawn.
It was Brexit that acted as the catalyst for this change. As for the Tories, once Boris’ deal is passed, serious long-term questions arise. How can they sustain these gains in the Labour heartlands, especially once Corbyn inevitably resigns? Unique to this election, the two causes for the Conservative victory, Corbyn and Brexit, will very quickly disappear from the public conscience. Boris Johnson is a Prime Minister who has revealed little about his plans for government, aside from immediate spending pledges, and he now faces a serious task of holding together this coalition of traditional Tory voters and newly-gained Labour leaders. With a commanding majority, for the first time in his life, it is now appropriate to define Johnsonism.
Today, the Lib Dems are without a leader and purpose, now that their central pledge is meaningless with Brexit underway. The party will need to rethink long and hard how it can reclaim its position in England. When Boris Johnson made his acceptance speech, just before 4 a.m., it focussed on nurses and investment in public services, filled with a rhetoric of centrist politics. If, having delivered Brexit, Johnson begins to shift towards the centre, those Lib Dem accusations of right-wing extremism will only become less credible.
Similarly, Labour this morning needs to consider a question more pertinent to the history of its Tory rivals: Does it choose to adjust to the changing political map, utilising a greater number of liberal metropolitan seats, or aim to win back its working-class voters?
If it chooses to embark on the latter, then watch Lisa Nandy in the upcoming leadership contest, who held onto Wigan amid a sea of revolt within Labour’s northwest heartlands. For this to happen, though, the moderate Labour MPs, who for three years followed a leader they never believed in, will need to defeat the institutions taken over by Momentum and the Corbyn project, including the NEC and the powerful membership.
The political climate will be characterised by certainty in the beginning of 2020. Gone are the days of tight parliamentary votes and leadership coups against the prime ministers. But once Brexit dissolves from the stage and energy moves to other domestic issues, Boris Johnson will need to govern in a way that holds an unnatural coalition of working-class Labour voters and traditional Tory loyalists together. Meanwhile, whilst Johnson has taken control of England and Wales, Scotland continues to pursue a direction towards independence, with SNP domination — albeit another Scottish referendum is something the Conservatives would likely resist, at least until a more pronounced mandate (watch the 2021 Holyrood elections for this).
Remarkably, it is an Etonian Oxford graduate from a privileged background, that has led the revolt against Labour using its forgotten Northern, Midland and Welsh heartlands. But Boris Johnson is a man wrongly underestimated and laughed upon. In 2016, by backing Brexit he earned the support and loyalty from those which helped lead him to his victory last night. Though many believed the Prime Minister had made serious missteps in his first 100 days, this morning’s result suggests otherwise.
Certainty is the outcome of this election, and certainty was its cause. Whilst Labour obfuscated, the removal of the whip from Tory Remain MPs, the proroguing of Parliament, and the securing of a Brexit deal, no matter how controversial, were all key steps in consolidating Johnson’s Brexit credentials in voters’ minds. Across the country voters were certain of one thing: the Conservatives’ pledge to deliver Brexit — and yesterday they rewarded Boris Johnson for that.