He’s done it. He’s only gone and done it. Boris Johnson who has spent his entire life defying political gravity has secured the biggest Tory majority since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 victory.
What are we to make of this? How did he do it? What kind of Prime Minister will he be with his own mandate and unfettered by knife-edge votes? And can we really ‘move on’ as a nation?
Firstly, the notion that he took a gamble by calling the election doesn’t really stack up. An election was inevitable; it was just when it could be manoeuvred to happen. His gamble was prior to that with the clear-out of the ‘Remain’ Tories (similar to Thatcher’s expulsion of the ‘wets’) and alignment to the Leave camps.
In truth, it was an easy calculation: he had been the face of the Leave campaign so presenting himself as a reformed Remainer would have been a stretch too far even for this maverick. Perhaps more telling was the sight of Jeremy Corbyn doing acrobatics to keep his own tribe in line – it didn’t work for Theresa May, so Johnson reckoned a strong leader with clarity was the better bet. And there were millions of Labour Leave voters to be chased.
The biggest factor was the Brexit Party standing down their candidates for the 317 seats already in Tory hands. Nigel Farage was the real kingmaker of this election. By giving Johnson’s Conservatives a clear run on their own seats and taking a bite out of the Labour heartlands Johnson owes him big time.
The stats tells us (courtesy of pollster to the stars Sir John Curtice) that 70% of Leave voters went for the Tories, whilst the Labour Party only gathered 50% of Remainers, the rest divvied up to the other opposition parties. On such calculations are victories made.
What kind of Prime Minister do we now have? That’s the biggest question. We have to remember that Johnson was elected mayor of London twice – not something achievable by a gunpowder-and-red-meat-eating hang ‘em and flog ‘em merchant. He was happy to attend Gay Pride, surrounded himself with a cosmopolitan entourage and mixed easily with market stall holders and city slickers.
Claims that he believes in nothing but himself, has no principles except those that will win him the day have lingered for some time, but it’s not exactly unheard of in political circles. And he has made some pretty bold promises that he won’t be able to hide from in the months and years to come.
His majority also gives him some wiggle room with the factions. The European Research Group (ERG) with their rabid tweed and Burtons brigade are now less influential than they might have been. They will no doubt continue to huff and puff about a pure Brexit, but they are never going to vote against legislation that brings them the prize of an exit from the EU. As Farage mentioned this morning, ‘half a loaf’ being better than none.
The trade deal that follows our exit will be hard fought and the 11-month deadline seems nigh on impossible. Johnson will have the nominal advantage that the EU will want a deal too. And his ability to shift blame to the other side in the event of a no-deal scenario or (more likely) a further extension of the transition period will also no doubt come into play. If one year becomes two or even three, he does at least have the security of a 5-year term. If deals with the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand et al are sealed within the period then there really could be a Boris Brexit Bonus (I’m really sorry for that one…)
There is – say it quietly – another possible persona that emerges. Johnson could actually turn out to be that One Nation Tory. He has dozens of latterly Labour strongholds now as part of his national constituency. Those voices – lost to the Tories for decades after the Thatcher years – will now expect a fair deal. If Johnson actually delivers investment and policies that meet the expectations in those areas of the country, this could be the first of a hat-trick of victories.
If he can bring a sense of fairness to the areas whose Brexit vote was an agonised cry of protest, he really will become the ‘Heineken Tory’ who reaches parts other Conservatives cannot reach. His tactic of multiple alignment, rather than commitment to any one group brings the flexibility. He can put on the tuxedo for the City lunch and within hours be in wellies chatting in the mud with the farmer or on the quayside with fisherman. Is it smoke and mirrors? Is it a convenient, insincere deception? But ultimately, if it provides the means for a better life for communities across the land – does it matter?
Perhaps most infuriating for his critics is he managed to present himself as change. A new broom. A fresh start. He infused enough of the electorate with a sense that we are now embarking on a new direction, a clean break from what has gone before. Undeniably he was part of the previous government – although made sure he was never too closely associated with what never quite became ‘May-ism’.
Boris Johnson now has his own mandate. His own manifesto ratified and a brand new 5-year term. He now has the awesome responsibility to deliver on the various promises made. It is a domestic and global agenda that will be a seismic shift in our nation’s direction and destiny. There will be mistakes, disappointments and very high-stakes battles along the way.
Brexit is now settled. UKIP/Brexit Party won the 2014/2018 European elections. The nation voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. 80% voted Labour and Conservatives in 2017 on their commitment to deliver Brexit. And yesterday’s general election couldn’t have been clearer with the choices.
The future of the United Kingdom is less certain. Scotland’s vote to stay part of the union in 2014 was against the backdrop of remaining in the EU. They voted 62/38 to remain in the referendum. It’s hard to dispute that leaving the EU is a sufficient change to warrant another independence vote. The loosening of the ties that bind Northern Ireland also raises the prospect of a united Ireland being back on the agenda.
The global climate change conversation will continue to grow. The erratic, distracted US Presidency has empowered both Russian and China to upset the old order. European allies may ironically provide a better bulwark in the years to come. Boris Johnson is stepping into a very hot kitchen with little prospect of many quiet days to come. He will emerge from this as either a great leader spoken of for generations to come, or vilified as a charlatan, a failure who hoodwinked the country for his own ends.
I wish him well and hope for the first outcome. Everyone deserves a chance – especially one who has been given a resounding majority from the country. I’d also like to think that only the most tribally biased would want to see our country fail, just to prove a political point.