Tory landslide gives Johnson a free hand to shape Brexit

By on 13/12/2019
Photo by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye via Northern Ireland Office, flickr

In a decisive victory, Boris Johnson has secured five years as the UK’s prime minister – clearing the way for a January Brexit. And his dramatic defeat of the Labour Party also leaves him free to adopt a more pragmatic line on the EU trade relationship. Matt Ross reports

Conservative leader Boris Johnson has won a landslide victory in the UK’s general election, clearing the path for the country to leave the EU early in the new year.

The Tories secured an additional 47 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, leaving them on 364: the party’s best performance since 1987, providing a robust majority of 78. And Labour dropped 59 seats to 203 – its worst result since 1935 – after losing seats to the Tories in the Midlands, North and Wales. The Scottish National Party secured an additional 13 seats, making gains against both the Tories and Labour to finish on 48 seats.

Although the Conservative share of the popular vote rose by just 1.2 points to 43.6%, a fall of 7.8 points to 32.2% in Labour’s vote share let the Tories through in many seats. A rise of 4.2 points in LibDem support also contributed to Labour’s losses, but their voters’ distribution did the LibDems no favours: under the UK’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system, the party’s 11.5% vote share landed it just 11 seats – one fewer than previously.

Among the LibDems’ casualties was Jo Swinson, the party’s new leader – who had run an aggressive campaign, talking up her chances of becoming prime minister and pledging to halt Brexit without a public vote. Swinson lost her seat in Dunbartonshire East, in Scotland’s central belt, to the SNP by just 149 votes. Meanwhile in London, as the scale of the defeat became clear the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, announced that he would not lead his party into the next election.

Jeremy Corbyn on the campaign trail. (Image courtesy: Jeremy Corbyn/flickr).

Although polls had consistently shown a Conservative lead of about 10 points over Labour, a high number of ‘don’t knows’ – along with the wild card of several prominent defectors and independents – had left pundits uncertain of the outcome. But in a repetition of the ‘shy Tory’ factor that skewed polling in the run-up to the 1992 and 2015 elections, the ‘don’t knows’ broke decisively for the Conservatives, creating a nationwide swing that hit both Labour candidates and the independents and defectors.

Several Tory MPs who had the whip withdrawn by Johnson after blocking a ‘no deal’ EU exit – including the former ministers David Gauke, Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry – lost their seats to Tory candidates after standing as independents. And the Labour MPs who quit to join the LibDems over Corbyn’s ambiguous stance on Brexit, along with the party’s perceived weakness in tackling anti-Semitism, were all defeated. A handful of defectors from the Tory party also fell.

In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party lost two of its 10 seats – including that of Nigel Dodds, the party’s lead in Westminster. Irish republicans Sinn Fein saw their vote share fall by 6.7 points, but retained their seven seats – though its MPs refuse to take their seats at Westminster. In a significant shift, the moderate SDLP and Alliance parties picked up three seats between them – breaking the DUP and Sinn Fein’s traditional dominance.

Turnout was a respectable 67.3%, 1.5 points down on the 2017 election.

Election analysis

Several factors combined to create this political earthquake: a national shift as great as those that brought Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to power – and one likely to change the country even more than those two political giants.

Disunity among the opposition parties split the anti-Tory vote, with Labour and the LibDems concentrating much of their fire on one another while the People’s Vote campaign collapsed in acrimony. And although Boris Johnson’s strategist Dominic Cummings – a key figure in Vote Leave’s 2016 referendum victory – had suffered tactical setbacks in Parliament during Johnson’s brief spell as the head of a minority government, the general election format played to his strengths.

Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson lost her seat in the election. (Image courtesy: Liberal Democrats/flickr).

Massively outspending the opposition parties, the Tories led with a pledge to ‘get Brexit done’: the party was, in effect, making its key selling point the offer to make its own headline policy go away. And its social media campaign targeted working class Leave voters disillusioned with Labour, while deliberately undermining trust in mainstream news outlets: when a photo emerged of a sick child lying on the floor of an NHS hospital, a blizzard of identical social media posts claimed that the picture had been staged.

The key factor, though, was the failure of Jeremy Corbyn to win the public’s trust or to assemble an election-winning coalition of voters. Tony Blair – the only Labour leader to win a general election since 1974 – secured three victories by bringing together traditional working class voters, metropolitan liberals, and swing voters disillusioned with the Tories. But Corbyn’s radical left platform alienated swing voters and moderate Tory Remainers, who swallowed their concerns about Brexit to back Johnson. Eager not to lose working class Leave voters – and personally sceptical about EU membership – Corbyn had maintained an ambiguous position on Brexit, only inching towards a Remain position following big defeats in local and EU elections. His stance was in vain, however, because these voters reacted against the Labour leader: his past associations with the IRA and radical Islamists went down particularly badly with this demographic. And meanwhile, many metropolitan liberals had abandoned Labour in favour of parties with a stronger Remain position.

The result was that Labour saw a dramatic 10.4 point fall in its vote share in areas where at least 60% voted Leave during the 2016 referendum, while the Tory share rose 6.1 points. And the party also managed to drop 6.4 points in areas where at least 60% voted Remain, with voters moving to the LibDems and Greens as the Tories fell back by 2.9 points.

Continuing revelations about Labour’s failure to tackle anti-Semitism within the party, the Brexit party’s two point vote share and constant attacks by the Brexity press did Labour no favours. Ultimately, though, Corbyn’s unpopularity lies at the core of the party’s defeat: at around -45 points, his net satisfaction rating was lower than any main party leader in the last 40 years. Though Johnson’s own rating hovered at around -20 – below that of every election winner except for Blair’s -25 in 2005 – the voters plumped for the leader they disliked least.

Next up: Brexit

Johnson’s new mandate – which, barring disaster, should give him at least five years in Number 10 – makes it almost certain that the UK will leave the EU by the end of January. And the size of his majority is likely to give him a far freer hand in shaping Brexit than his predecessor, Theresa May.

The hardcore Brexit Tory MP grouping, the European Reform Group – whose opposition wrecked May’s deal – generally mustered around 40 votes. But in the wake of a landslide victory, they won’t give Johnson any trouble for a while. The exit of Remainer Tory MPs – as well as those who lost the whip and were subsequently defeated, a number of key figures have retired – removes another of his problems. And the weakened Democratic Unionist Party – whose vigorous opposition to May’s deal has, ultimately, resulted in a deal that weakens the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain – has now lost all influence.

So, having ridden the hard Brexit horse to victory, Johnson may now choose to tack back towards a slightly closer trade relationship with the EU. For the size of his majority makes it possible for him to break campaign promises, trading short-term popularity for a less disruptive economic break with the EU – and thus protecting his new Northern and Midlands seats, which are highly dependent on the Continental trade in manufactured goods. As Global Government Forum argued last month, Johnson’s pledge to agree an EU trade deal by the end of 2020 can only be delivered by sacrificing the UK’s economic interests; instead, he may well choose to sacrifice his pledge.

That would, of course, prompt howls of outrage from his hard Brexit supporters; but they have now lost much of their Parliamentary power. And the electorate backed Johnson despite knowing his long track record of deception: this prime minister – like his ally across the Atlantic – can probably break his promises without damaging his reputation. If doing so means that he does not instead break the economy – weakening his chances of securing another five years in a 2024 general election – then Boris Johnson may well begin to show his pragmatic side.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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