Boris Johnson stood for party leader as a One Nation Tory, he fought the campaign as a One Nation Tory and this is the agenda that has given him the largest Tory majority since 1987. Much is being made of the collapse of the Labour party’s vote, but something more profound is under way. The Tories are changing, and they have a message that was directed at – and understood by – a new cohort of voters. It has the potential to transform British politics.
It’s wrong to say – as many do – that the phrase ‘One Nation Tory’ is senseless. Its meaning comes from Disraeli’s dictum, in Sybil, that Britain was divided into two nations: the rich and the poor. The point of One Nation Toryism is to render this distinction null and void: to create a Conservative party that has a classless appeal and a situation where a typical Tory voter is as likely to be on the minimum wage as they are to be a millionaire. It looks like this has been achieved in this election, with the Tories winning both Crewe and Kensington, Buckingham and Bolsover.
In his address to Tory activists, the Prime Minister was right to say that the voters in the northern seats would not have given the Conservatives a mandate on this scale if they did not also think that the Tories had a broader agenda. That is: to promise to introduce one of the highest minimum wages in the world, to embark on a huge borrow-and-spend agenda and to reduce regional inequalities. Those who think that the Conservatives were bluffing in a bid to win over northerners will be surprised. The Prime Minister is more Heseltine than Thatcher, and will govern as such.
Those who get their news from social media could easily be persuaded that the last nine years of Tory government have made poverty worse. In fact, the wages of the lowest-paid have been rising the fastest since 2010. This fact was not lost on the new type of voters who are voting Tory for the first time in their lives.
The mission of uniting the country – one of Johnson’s core stated aims – will be difficult to pull off. Just as the gap between politicians and the people has widened, so too has the political gulf between voters. Allegiances have become less tribal in some ways, in that Labour and Conservative supporters are no longer so closely defined in terms of social class. But politics has fractured along new fault lines, in which age and education are the main defining features. Brexit has created a sense of sectarianism not previously encountered on the British mainland. There are now people on either side of the Brexit divide who are, as Disraeli wrote, ‘as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets’. The dividing line previously separating rich and poor has now been drawn between Leave and Remain. The task of a One Nation Tory party will be to unite these factions.
We heard plenty from candidates over the past few weeks about how they are going ‘to bring the country together’, but rather less in the way of explanation as to how they hope to achieve this. The general impression is that various factions have been awaiting victory in the great battle of Brexit, and that they hope that thereafter, the losing side will come quickly round to accept their point of view. To judge from the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, this is a bold hope.
Democracy only works, of course, when people are prepared to accept the result of elections and referendums, however much they regret them. The country can only start to come together if, this time around, all refrain from trying to dispute the legitimacy of the result. The scale of Labour’s implosion should make this easier. This was a rout, a clear rejection of Corbynism, an abandonment of Labour by its supposedly core voters. There will be no more talk of a second Brexit referendum. The era of such wrangling has been brought to an end by an exasperated electorate keen to move on.
This election campaign was Remain’s last stand. The cause is now lost, but the Tories should not rejoice. A great many people are concerned that Britain will turn in on itself, and is about to follow a nativist and populist path. Their concerns need to be addressed. There is much that Johnson can do to show that he is serious about Britain being the EU’s greatest single ally, about a globally-minded Brexit and about compassionate Conservatism.
One of the first acts of the new parliament will be to pass the Brexit deal. This will now happen without drama: a majority of this size means that parliamentary votes will no longer be as fraught as they have been recently. The Prime Minister will be free to cut his own path: neither buffeted by the Liberal Democrats as David Cameron was nor boxed in by Tory factions, as was Theresa May’s fate. This was his agenda, his manifesto – and is, now, his victory.