Opinion – For the Many, Not the Few

William Atkinson on why Boris Johnson and the Conservatives won

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Unsurprisingly, a Tory Prime Minister said it best. We’ve heard a lot from Boris Johnson in the last few weeks and months about ‘one-nation Conservatism’. It’s a phrase Tories usually reach for when they have no idea how to sum up their philosophy. It has the added benefit that it’s alleged to come from Benjamin Disraeli. Unfortunately, that’s not quite true: it was first used by Stanley Baldwin between the wars, though my weird historian fondness for Mr Baldwin means that I think that’s really no bad thing. But Disraeli did talk about ‘two nations’ in his novel Sybil: the rich and the poor. Two nations between whom, he wrote: “there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones”. As so many in Westminster, on Twitter and in the vegan cafes and leftist book shops of Britain splutter in horrified indignation as Boris returns to Downing Street with the largest Tory majority since 1987, Disraeli’s words are undoubtedly at the forefront of my mind.

This was an election won by those voters across Britain fed up enough with an out-of-touch liberal establishment and a grotesquely transformed Labour Party to put their trust in the most extraordinary and idiosyncratic – and most successful – politician of his generation. How else do you explain a result so remarkable? Not only did the Tories gain their largest share of the vote since 1979, or Labour their lowest number of seats since 1935, but they did so after nine and a half years of Conservative-led governments. They did so by winning seats that haven’t been blue since before the war, if ever. It’s almost impossible to mention all their phenomenal gains in one go. Don Valley and Leigh had been Labour for 97 years; Rother Valley 101. Bishop Auckland hasn’t had a Tory MP in its 134-year history. It now has a Tory majority of 7,962. That’s alongside seats like Sedgefield (the safest Labour seat in the country when a certain Anthony Blair was its MP), and Bolsover which has been held by the perpetually unfunny Dennis Skinner for the last 49 years. Former mining-constituencies like Blyth Valley and Delyn and industrial towns like Burnley and Redcar are all now Conservative. These are places where the idea of electing a Tory before last Thursday was as unlikely as the PM publicly admitting how many kids he has. This wasn’t just the Conservatives winning seats of Labour but them winning the very seats which were once Labour’s heart and soul.

How could this once-in-a-century result have come about? It was founded on a revulsion against the Labour party by many of its traditional voters. They turned away because of Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. One of the most enjoyable immediate consequences of the result has been watching Remainers squabbling with Corbynistas over who is more to blame for Labour’s defeat. Seeing John Bercow near-to-tears after the exit poll only presaged a cacophony of voices from those like Alastair Campbell, who furiously denounced the Labour leadership whilst denying that their attempts to reverse the referendum result might have alienated Labour Leave-voters. Meanwhile, Momentum groupies and Corbyn outriders like John Lansman and Owen Jones spluttered that the election was entirely about Brexit, and that Comrade Jeremy was nothing to do with it as he was actually really popular, honest (despite, y’know, leading his party to its worst defeat since the war). It’s a sign of both camps’ delusions that it was clearly a combination of both.

Working-class Brits have always been patriotic. Voting to leave the EU was, for many lifelong Labour voters, the first time they’d defied the party of their parents and grandparents. They did so not because they were thick, or racist, or duped by a bus, as I’ve heard many of my fellow students claim, but because they love their country and happen to think national self-governance might be a better choice for Britain than membership of a bureaucratic monstrosity with aspirations towards statehood. They’re pissed off after watching for three and a half years as MPs, self-important judges and the whole stuck-up political and media establishment have sought to frustrate and denigrate their vote and stop Britain from leaving the EU. Last time, Labour said it accepted the referendum result. This time it stood on a second referendum platform. No wonder it was trounced.  

Voters didn’t just turn away from Labour because they wanted to “get Brexit done”. They did so because they could tell that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party wasn’t the same party as their fathers’ and grandfathers’. Labour supporters might repeat ad infinitum how popular manifesto policies like renationalising the railways and taxing billionaires more were. But they counted for nowt in the face of a wide-scale realisation by decent, patriotic Labour voters that Corbyn and his party were antithetical to their values. This wasn’t just the basic stuff: not singing the national anthem, his unwillingness to support Britain in any conflict since 1945 or the sneaking suspicion he thought the wrong side won the Cold War. It was the horrifying stuff: his “friendship” with the IRA and Hamas, his inability to condemn the Russian government after the Salisbury poisoning and, more than anything, his failure to properly tackle the explosion of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party under his leadership. After over three long years of Corbynistas branding Brexit voters racist, it was the vile anti-Semitism that has come to be associated with Labour under his leadership that helped doom the party for so many of its previous supporters. These were Labour voters who have abhorred anti-Semitism their whole lives and were rightly outraged at a party that almost seemed to believe abolishing tuition fees was marginally more important than whether British Jews felt safe in their own country. Jeremy Corbyn was not a man they could, in good conscience, vote to make Prime Minister. So they voted accordingly.

Voting Tory was still a big step, after all. I have an uncle from Burnley and I know first-hand the ancestral loathing which exists for the Conservatives across much of the country. For seats like Burnley to go blue thus needed the most unusual of unusual circumstances. Brexit and Corbyn certainly helped turn those voters away from Labour. But what meant that they bothered to vote Tory rather than just abstain was that they knew they were voting for a Conservative Party that also wasn’t the same party of their fathers and grandfathers. This was the party of Boris Johnson.  For those who loathe Boris, understanding his popularity and success must be something of an infuriating riddle. At best, he’s said to be an incompetent charlatan; at worst, he’s labelled a racist or a homophobe. Unsurprisingly, I vociferously disagree with all those charges, based as they so often are on old quotes taken out of context. They’re easily dismissed by his actual record. After all, how many homophobes vote against Section 28? A vote which Jeremy Corbyn was absent for, remember. Anyhow, debating that is for another day: more importantly, I think I know why so many like Boris. It’s encapsulated by what a topless, Stella-swigging man once shouted at him whilst he was campaigning to be London Mayor: “Boris, you’re a c*** but I still loves ya!” What I think most outrages Boris’ critics is his sheer audacity. He combines a versatile sense of humour with a brazen sense of mischief. Entitled, power-hungry, scruffy, but my God, what a change he is to the identikit techno-droids who’ve governed the country for at least the last thirty years. For those sick to their back teeth of politics as usual, this old Etonian scion of the Bullingdon Club and ex-President of the Union is far more of anti-establishment tribune than Corbyn and his unpatriotic Marxist ilk could ever be. Boris is not only brilliantly British, but brilliantly Boris, and one of the few Tories so many Labour voters could ever feel comfortable backing.

But it wasn’t only the messenger that was crucial to the Conservatives’ success, but his message. Boris fought this election on a remarkable new Tory platform. Not only did he pledge to get us out of the EU, but he promised more money for those areas that Tory focus groups identified as the public’s priorities: the NHS, schools and the police. The decision early in the campaign to scrap a planned corporation tax cut in favour of more money for the health service indicated an approach wildly different from those of this predecessor. It was a Tory pitch that laid to rest the ghosts of Thatcherism and austerity. Influenced by Dominic Cummings, it delivered exactly what traditional Labour voters wanted, from an Australian style points-system on immigration to tax cuts for the lowest paid. Coupled with Boris’ instinctive enthusiasm for big infrastructure projects and expanding research and development, the Tories were asking a mandate for the first term of Boris, not the fourth term of the Conservatives.  For those who had voted Labour all their lives and got little back, why not take a punt on an agenda tailored to their views? SW1 is tearing its hair out over an agenda mixing left and right in the way most voters do. Maybe that shows just how out-of-touch it is. The Tories can toast a policy programme that has the potential to change Britain as much as Thatcher and Attlee once did. Boris has four to five years to deliver on these pledges. If he does, I won’t be surprised to see the Tories win an even larger majority next time around.

That’s not to deny the challenges ahead. The results in Scotland and Northern Ireland are clearly concerning for Unionists like myself. With 48 seats, the SNP didn’t romp to the victory the exit poll predicted, nor repeated their success from 2015. But coming at the same time as an unprecedented number of nationalist MPs for Ulster, it does make one wonder about the implications of Brexit for our Union. Perhaps paradoxically, I’m confident Brexit will ultimately do more to stifle these separatists than aid them. I’ve written before how I think leaving the EU makes the SNP’s case much harder. If they can’t even win a majority of Scottish votes now, I very much doubt they would in any referendum in the near future. The Tories almost certainly won’t grant them one anyway. Nicola Sturgeon can grumble and moan all she likes but our 47-year old Union with the EU will split far sooner than the 312-year-old one between England and Scotland. The situation in Northern Ireland is trickier. Undoubtedly, concerns about Brexit and the implications of the Prime Minister’s deal played a part. That’s clearly seen in the surge of support for the non-sectarian Alliance Party. But striking a free trade deal with the EU as the government wants to do by the end of next year removes the need for the sort of checks and barriers that a majority in Northern Ireland fear. Whether that can be done in the timetable Boris hopes is debatable, yes, but as with restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly it’s an aspiration his government is committed to. If they’re achieved, expect to see a majority of Unionist MPs again at the next election – and some Tory gains in Scotland.

But that’s all for tomorrow. For now, Boris Johnson and the Conservatives are in a position of power not seen since Blair or Mrs T were in their pomp. They have a mission to radically change Britain. They want to deliver a new kind of Toryism for those voters who leant them their vote this time across the North, the Midlands and Wales. If they succeed they can look forward to a decade or more in power. If they fail, and Labour gets its act together, this heady victory will all be for nought. For some reason, however, I don’t think they will fail. The sincere commitment of those in Number 10 and of the tranche of new Tory MPs means this government will be rigorously focused on bringing this nation back together. Labour’s immediate response of squabbling about the result and blaming the media – or, in Ken Livingstone’s case, “Jewish voters” – suggests they won’t be threatening the Tories any time soon. In that case, the United Kingdom’s decade of political turbulence ends with a renewed government empowered to transform the country for the better by listening who’ve been isolated for too long from the political establishment. Hopefully, this won’t just change the Conservatives, Westminster and our place in the world, but the lives and opportunities of those who entrusted Boris Johnson to do more for them than voting Labour ever has. Ironically, considering how I started, I can’t help but feel a Labour Prime Minister summed it up best. A new dawn has broken, has it not?