Elections should be carnivals of democracy, yet the campaign we have just been through has felt more like amateur dramatics at times – the standard of debate has not risen to the importance of the issues at stake. Yet this election will go down as one of the most consequential in British history. It has brought a profound change to our politics: not just that Brexit is now certain to happen, but also in the way that both main parties have transmogrified before our eyes – in terms of what they stand for, and who they appeal to.
The list of Tory gains shows the extent of the change that has just taken place: Leigh, Workington, Clwyd South, Darlington, Wrexham, Burnley, Redcar, Scunthorpe and a slew of other working-class seats north of the Watford Gap. Several of them have not returned a Tory MP for several decades, others had never voted Tory before. But even on a night when the country swung to them, the Tories lost Putney, seven of their 13 Scottish seats and failed to regain Canterbury. This state of flux will continue. Strategists in all parties believe that there will be even fewer safe seats come the next election.
What we are seeing is a process of realignment. Class no longer determines people’s party allegiances in the way it once did; instead, politics is becoming a battle over values. The Conservatives have adjusted better to changing priorities than the Labour Party, which is why Boris Johnson has just achieved one of the most spectacular election victories in recent British political history – breaking the deadlock that has gripped parliament since the 2017 election.
Brexit has become the prime battleground. It has catalysed this change in voting patterns — and given the Tories a hearing in parts of the country that used to be solidly Labour. As the man who helped lead the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson is the only major party leader who was able to say he simply wanted to deliver on the referendum result. He implored those who had voted Leave to back him so he could ‘get Brexit done’— and they did. Quite often, this was the only slogan he used: it occupied the space where, in previous campaigns, the word ‘Conservative’ used to appear.
The flip side of this appeal to Leavers is that it cost the Tories the support of many Remainers, those who see Brexit as an assault on their values weren’t wild about the prospect of voting for its champion. This has cost the Tories support they would have once regarded as essential: Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, saw the majority in his Surrey constituency shrink from 23,000 to just 2,300.
Politics has moved faster than Westminster’s ability to keep up with it. For some time now, Leave and Remain have been more powerful identities than traditional party allegiances. The Tory problem in 2017 was that they tried to appeal in Leave areas with a classic Tory economic prospectus and found that Brexit was not a magic word that made concerns about a Tory agenda vanish. This was the mistake that Boris Johnson remedied, with striking results.
The prospectus on which the Tories have just won so much of the north is one of spending and borrowing: some £100 billon over five years. It worked: Leigh, which was supposedly one of the hardest hit during ‘austerity’, has now returned a Tory with a 1,900 majority. This is a seat where just four years ago, Labour’s Andy Burnham was returned with a majority of 14,100.
The Prime Minister fought the campaign promising the ‘biggest ever cash boost’ to the NHS and ‘massive investment’. There was no talk of reform, just an emphasis on how he would pump more money into the system in a bid to reassure the new target voters. This is why Johnson’s uncertain reaction to the photo of a four-year-old boy lying on coats on the floor of an overcrowded hospital caused such panic in Tory ranks.
It was another former Spectator editor turned Tory politician, Nigel Lawson, who described the NHS as the nearest thing we have to a national religion. Rather than attempting a reformation, Johnson is trying to become its high priest. He started this campaign by announcing he was abandoning a proposed cut in corporation tax so that he could spend more money on the health service. The message this was designed to send was clear: the Tories prioritise the NHS over tax cuts for big business. Don’t think that with a big majority, Johnson will change tack. Instead he’ll continue with his path of ploughing more money into the NHS. He and his team are convinced that the common ground of British politics involves putting more money into the NHS and taking a harder line on law and order. He has a lot of new voters to keep happy.
What about tax cuts for the well-paid? In the Tory leadership contest, the Prime Minister floated the idea of raising the higher-rate threshold to £80,000, exactly the kind of policy that would appeal in the affluent seats of the south-east. But this idea has been sent to the back of the queue. Instead, the Tories’ February Budget will raise the National Insurance threshold, to ensure those on low wages benefit the most. This must be seen alongside the plan announced at Tory conference to increase the minimum wage to £10.50 an hour, one of the highest rates in the world. This would mean that the salary of one in six workers was being set by the state. In this new Toryism, such level of intervention in the market is seen as acceptable if that is what it takes to boost low pay.
In his interview with this magazine a fortnight ago, the Prime Minister identified regional inequality as one of the major factors behind the Leave vote. His Toryism attempts to deal with this issue. Unsurprisingly, the solution is based around infrastructure. He argues, with justification, that a large part of London’s economic success is down to its transport network. His government would spend huge sums on capital projects. He has already indicated that he would rip up the Treasury rules on which projects get the go-ahead to ensure that more building takes place outside London and the south-east. The party of austerity has become the party of boosterism.
This was not election posturing: during the campaign, plans were hatched to start on this without delay. ‘Infrastructure spending and pump priming are going to be the order of the day,’ says one of those close to Johnson. Why the haste? Because infrastructure tends to take years to build: in the next election, voters are unlikely to back the Tories in gratitude for a proliferation of cranes and hi-vis jackets. From the get-go, the Conservatives knew their campaign for former Labour seats was a double risk: they might not win them, and without being able to deliver on their promises they might not be able to keep them. They have taken them, now they must improve their lot.
Labour’s challenge in this election was to try to maintain its old ‘Hull and Hampstead’ coalition while transitioning to its new electoral base. It failed, and Labour has ended up with fewer seats than any general election since 1935. Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to stay neutral in any second referendum couldn’t disguise the fact that Labour wouldn’t accept the result of the first one.
Corbynomics did represent a huge lurch to the economic left — but it was, at the same time, a massive giveaway to Labour’s target middle-class voters. Wealthier families would benefit most from the abolition of tuition fees and a third off rail fares. John McDonnell claimed Labour would make each family £6,700 a year better off, but to get anywhere near those savings, you would have to be a very middle-class household. Both parents would have to work and commute by train, and their children would be ineligible for free school meals under the previous system.
Labour’s broadband policy was a boon to the well-off too. It is one thing for the state to nationalise an industry; quite another for it then to give its product away for free. The Corbynite defence of the universalism of this policy was that services for the poor become poor services. In reality, though, Labour’s policy would have resulted in millions of people who can afford to pay for broadband — and currently do so — getting it for free. It is further evidence that Labour’s policy offering had been crafted to appeal to what is fast becoming the key part of its new electoral base: young graduates who aren’t in the top 5 per cent of earners.
After this defeat, Labour has a decision to make. Does it go back to the centre on economics? Or does it persist on this course of a huge expansion in the role of the state?
Theresa May called an election in 2017 hoping to realign British politics – only to lose her party’s majority and throw politics into deadlock. Boris Johnson has succeeded where she failed. He has lined up the Leave vote behind him and created a new, extraordinary electoral coalition. Now, his job is to keep it.
James Forsyth, Katy Balls and Steve Richards on the election result.