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A Full English Breakfast For Boris

December 17, 2019 | Expert Insights

Boris Johnson concluded his early morning victory speech like only a journalist gifted with the pen of humour can. “Ladies and gentlemen, so let’s get Brexit done. But first, let’s get breakfast done,” he said. Johnson’s was taken care of. He’s just had the opposition Labour Party and its beleaguered leader Jeremy Corbyn for breakfast. In the snap general elections held in the UK on December 12, Johnson’s Conservative and Unionist Party secured a landslide 365 seats in a house of 650 and the comfortable cushion of an 80-seat majority. With his thumping win, Brexit will finally be done, but the United Kingdom could be undone. 

In an election forced by the parliamentary logjam over the modalities of exiting the European Union mandated by the referendum of 2016, Brexit provided the context and crux for the contest. The Conservatives kept their slogan simple: Let’s get Brexit done. In contrast, the Labour Party, in the main, offered two things: unprecedented levels of public spending that even its traditional voters did not consider credible; and plenty of dithering on the question of Brexit. The amount of freebies on offer—no tuition fee, free broadband, free childcare--in the Labour manifesto that Corbyn called “radical” and “fully costed” was too good to be true.

The result, while not wholly surprising, has fundamentally reshaped the political geography of the UK. Britain has seen bigger electoral victories. Under Tony Blair, Labour won two consecutive elections with more than 400 seats at each time of asking. But Labour hasn’t lost as badly since 1935. 

Fresh fault lines

But the big story is the complete reversal of the support base of the two major British parties. The Conservative Party, for long the natural party of governance, traditionally drew its support base from the affluent southern towns and countryside of England. The Labour Party’s strengths lay in the industrial and poorer midlands and north of England so much so that a vast tract of land coast-to-coast from the midlands northwards was known as the Red Wall that the conservatives have hardly ever managed to penetrate. But in post-Brexit Britain, the Red Wall now has big blue holes. Nearly 60 hard-core Labour seats from these parts switched to Conservative. There are many seats in the region that have never in history had a Conservative MP. These, after all, were the regions that voted heavily to leave the European Union. The mines had long disappeared, and the once-thriving factories and shipyards of the north too vanished under the force of globalization. Its people were convinced that cheap immigrant labour from Eastern Europe and stifling EU regulations had made their lives more miserable. In such ‘leave’ strongholds, the Conservative Party in 2019 has won seats it has never managed to in the past. A vast number of die-hard labour supporters, who couldn’t dream of voting Conservative, seem to have “lent” Johnson their vote in a Brexit election. The Labour Party inside the parliament has decidedly been anti-Brexit. Its support base, the working class, saw this as a betrayal and the election results can be viewed as a revolt of the die-hards against their own Party. The Labour’s catchment now remains restricted to university towns, the well-off in London and the big cities, the young cosmopolitan liberals whom Brexit would hurt the most, and ethnic minorities. 

While there is no now ambiguity about Brexit, the union of the UK appears shakier than ever. Almost 60% of Scotland had voted to remain in the EU. The Scottish National Party (SNP) that governs the region has won 48 of the 59 House of Commons seats today, increasing its votes hare by some 8%. With such overwhelming support, the SNP has already started pushing for a new independence vote after the first in 2014 was defeated. It will be hard for the new government to drag the Scots out of the EU on the basis of a majority won entirely in England. In Northern Ireland too, the nationalist outfits led by Sinn Fein that seek the territory’s unification with Ireland for the first time outnumber the Unionists (those who support being in the UK) in the House of Commons. 

Fixing ‘Broken Britain’

The contrasting approach of the Labour and Conservative parties to the campaign makes for an interesting political case study. In their ruthless pursuit of power, the Conservatives had no qualms in sacrificing Teresa May as Prime Minister earlier this year and quickly coalescing around Boris Johnson. Despite being dissed by his opponents as a “liar”, “far-right fundamentalist” and “clown”, Conservatives knew only Johnson had the feel-good factor to take them into electoral territory out of bounds for most others in the party. Meantime, the Labour party had been turned into a cult of Corbyn. The empty idealism of his loyalists called Corbynistas made little sense even for Labour lifers. People who could not prove their ideological purity were purged from the Party. His incompetence and arrogant refusal in dealing with rampant anti-Semitism in the Party that made its claims to liberalism seem increasingly hollow. Corbyn the bogeyman supplied an endless stream of electoral gifts to Boris Johnson. Post poll surveys conducted in the former Labour strongholds suggest disaffection with Corbyn a bigger reason than Brexit for choosing Johnson. 

As is usually the case with such campaigns cloaked in self-righteousness, the only constituency where decisive victories can be scored is social media. 

Boris Johnson is an election campaigner extraordinaire. He won two back to back mayoral elections in London, another Labour stronghold. He was the face of the ‘leave’ campaign in 2016 that scored a victory against all odds. But now begins a new challenge. Getting Brexit done with minimal impact on an already stagnant economy requires more than smart slogans. The election results will force the Conservative Party to undergo a drastic change. It is now the Party of the working class. Tallying its traditional economic instincts of government austerity, low taxes, light touch-regulation and championing free markets with the new vote base in long-neglected regions that require massive public investments will test its capacity to the limits. And, yes, there’s the minor matter of keeping the Union together.  


Authored by T.R. Vivek

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