We are living through a revolution. It isn’t quite the revolution many NS readers had been hoping for. But it is, nevertheless, a dizzying episode of upending change. This election result will change Britain’s place in the world, affect the life chances of millions of people, and may yet unpick the United Kingdom. It demands to be properly understood. Sticking your fingers in your ears, screaming at the ceiling and drumming your heels on the floor isn’t an adequate response.
The shape of this revolution should not be a surprise. It began in the years after the 2008 financial crash, when the British state responded by radically restricting spending and, in doing so, greatly exaggerated the gap in life expectations, hope and happiness between the poorest social classes and least invested-in communities, and the rest. A fracture opened up between comfortable and uncomfortable Britain. That crack was then widened when David Cameron imported a plebiscite into British parliamentary democracy. It allowed the first big modern provincial rebellion against metropolitan power – an uprising that was about culture and dignity as well as economic position.
After 2016, Brexit began to shatter the party system itself. During the election campaign, pollsters found Remain and Leave identities were coming to matter more to voters than their traditional party labels – and if you doubt that, ask Dennis Skinner, the Labour MP who on 13 December lost his seat in Bolsover after 49 years. A fundamental remaking of the party system was intensified by the long hiatus, from 2016 to 2019, spent negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU. Meanwhile, parliamentarians, aghast at the economic damage they feared was coming, and helped by a radically minded Speaker, failed to devise a form of Brexit that had majority support.
Across Britain, the anger and distress multiplied. The speed with which Nigel Farage was able to form and spread his insurrectionary Brexit Party and the huge mobilisation of middle-class Britons for another EU referendum were both warning signals about how desperate and fed up many were becoming. Under Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party realised this – and picked a side. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, attempting to analyse the provincial and identity revolt only though the prism of anti-austerity class politics, failed to understand quite what was going on. Labour didn’t reorientate, or find a new language, nearly quickly enough. The collapse of so much of the “red wall” – Labour’s heartland in the Midlands and the north of England – goes back to that.
It leaves British politics reshaped – and weirdly personalised. The Tories, now with an impregnable Thatcher-scale majority, can take Britain out of the EU in January. Nobody – not the opposition parties, not Scotland, not business, not any part of the left – can stand in their way.
Very recently it was common to hear people ask, with a genuine puzzlement, what had happened to the prospect of a mildly centrist, progressive, pro-European political force. The December 2019 election has shattered that possibility, perhaps for ever. The Blairites in the Labour Party are a tiny, uninfluential rump. Their vocal media cheerleaders are an anachronism. The Europhile progressives who quit their parties have been everywhere rejected, not least because of Britain’s brutal first-past-the-post voting system. The Liberal Democrats have been decapitated.
But beyond the current lack of individual leaders, there is a yawning gap of vision. As the centre left goes through the agony of reimagining itself, it is at the mercy of Johnson’s world-view. Does “Remain” now mutate into “Return”? If so, is there really a UK-wide mandate for going back to Brussels, knocking on the door, apologising and asking to come home? Maybe. But only if the economic impact of leaving is so briskly horrific, such a wholesale slaughter of businesses and livelihoods in such short order, that no sane person can wish it to actually happen.
As the centre left ponders that, it should not assume that Johnson is sated by this victory and will therefore politely surrender the centre ground in future elections. His very first speech after his re-election emphasised investment in the regions and the NHS, and promised, almost abjectly, to win over new and still-sceptical Tory voters.
First day of school: Boris Johnson’s new cabinet. Credit: Leon Neal/Pool/AFP via Getty
Almost abjectly. Due to the massive dominance of his electoral position, and the freedom of manoeuvre it gives him, the single most important question in British politics today is simply: “Who is Boris Johnson?” Those who retort with the now familiar shorthand – he’s a liar, a buffoon, an entitled, outdated snob, a coward – dismiss him, immediately after his great victory, a little too easily. He has qualities. He is strategic, clever and wily. To underestimate him is to help him. He has spent his whole life disarming rivals and opponents. If “buffoon” was really the beginning and the end of the story, he wouldn’t have led the Leave campaign to its victory; nor would he have persuaded so many non-Tory voters to back him in so many northern and Midlands seats.
It may be uncomfortable, too painful for many people, to think about this just now. But Johnson is a truly formidable political leader. And unless his opponents at least attempt to understand him better, they are doomed to remain in the political wilderness he has created for them.
So, at this stage in the game, it may be time to put conventional political analysis to one side and turn instead to biography. There are many liberal-minded and Europhile Conservatives who still believe that Johnson is instinctively of their camp – “more Heseltinian than Thatcherite”, as one of them puts it. They observe the way that he has already tried to rebrand his party, talking of “One Nation Conservatives” rather as Tony Blair used the monicker “New Labour”. They see a future of higher public spending; of new roads and railways and housing; of environmental projects of all kinds; and – crucially – of a stealthy process of relative convergence with the EU, even as we leave it.
All this makes psychological sense. Many people who know Johnson well stress his desire to be loved and approved of – something that may have originated in the broken family and frequent moves of his early years. He really doesn’t want the British public to hate him.
He is also a man of bottomless ambition. Having won real power, he won’t want to lose it quickly. In a country so sentimentally attached to its NHS, why would he dismantle and privatise that? In an economy so habit-ridden, and now leading a party with so many MPs from working-class seats, dependent on public sector spending, why would he tear it all up in pursuit of neoliberal trade deals? And surely, as next year’s negotiations with the EU crystallise into a choice of divergence versus access, he will go for the less painful compromises, saving British jobs in the short term, at the cost of agreeing longer term “level playing field” agreements on regulations, tax and rights? If you want to be liked, and if you want to stay in power, isn’t that what you would do?
Yes, an empurpled Nigel Farage will be watching. And yes, the ERG may feel betrayed by that. But with a majority of 80, and five long years ahead, so what? Will ordinary voters, dazed and exhausted by the European argument already, really become angry about the details if Johnson ends up negotiating a classic British compromise between leaving the EU and staying in its economic orbit, as advocated by liberal Tories such as Rory Stewart? If you want a handbook for the liberal Johnson vision, try George Freeman’s Britain Beyond Brexit. There are plenty of copies of the sky-blue book lying around Downing Street.
This version of Johnson sounds almost reassuring. But there is evidence of another Boris Johnson. This one is the man who embraces radical disruptors such as Dominic Cummings and the American ideologue Steve Bannon; who revels in his alliance with Donald Trump; who doesn’t forgive his enemies and plots their downfall; who ruthlessly sacrifices colleagues, however much service they have given to his party; and whose journalistic writing is scattered, as he plays to the gallery, with careless but pungent prejudices of all kinds. The Johnson of the clan of Iain Macleod, never mind Benjamin Disraeli, doesn’t sit easily with the Johnson of bum boys and letter boxes.
What we might see is a Johnson administration trying to amass power in an unusual way – brushing aside any attempted restraints from the courts and parliament, ruling from a very tight inner circle, and acting aggressively towards any non-compliant or questioning media. There are early signs of war against the BBC, but after that many more will be in the firing line. Journalists across SW1 should be cautious about assuming that this will unsettle or in some way offend new Tory voters across the rest of the country. We should be prepared for a novel combination of harsh centralism in politics, combined with relatively expansionist and moderate policies elsewhere. Perhaps this is what “the people’s government” means.
Then there is the looming Scottish problem which, along with Northern Ireland, I predict will embroil British politics through the Johnson years. Although under pressure in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is the only rival political leader who Johnson can’t quite yet ignore. Granted, if he sticks by his promise to refuse another Scottish independence referendum then it is Sturgeon, not he, who has the most difficult immediate problems. Does she go for a semi-illegal popular referendum, and damn the consequences? That would go down badly in law-abiding Scotland, particularly if Scots are having to face leaving the British market, alongside their relative loss of European markets – the “double out”. But Johnson, who has never shown much natural empathy for Scotland, is going to have to work unusually hard to win over north Britons. Does he have the will, and the real desire, to do that? Again, we really don’t know.
One day, I suppose, we will discover the solution to the Johnson conundrum. In big, simple terms, which way does he go now? Towards a new centre-ground politics, steering from the right, not the left? Or towards English populism: a culture war on behalf of the despised, the left-behind and the politically incorrect, waged against liberals and the younger “woke” of the big cities?
The future of Britain depends on which door he chooses. His revolution isn’t only a matter of nurses and Brexit; it’s about the tone of public debate, how we regard one another and who we accept as “one of us”. I wonder whether Johnson even knows in which direction he is heading, for the leader of this provincial revolt against metropolitan liberal Britain is a complicated man. He has charm, charisma, manic energy and ferocious determination – as well as all the negative qualities so fruitlessly advertised by his opponents in the election.
Left-liberal Britain, as of now, has no leader remotely qualified to take him on. I don’t believe that Jeremy Corbyn lost the election because of a bad campaign. He was able to turn the argument back towards public services, austerity and the NHS. Debating with Johnson, he didn’t lose his cool. His offers to Waspi woman, on free broadband and to public sector workers were shrewdly chosen, and well sold. The “youthquake” of 2019 might not have been quite as large as that of 2017, but it was still there. Momentum and the Corbyn left energised enough volunteers to spook experienced Tory activists in the final days of the campaign. Online, their short films, memes and endorsements were much funnier, more emotional and cleverly crafted than anything the Conservatives produced.
Nor am I completely convinced that the Labour manifesto was simply too ambitious and too generous to persuade voters. By the end of the campaign billions were being thrown around by insouciant politicians on all sides as if they were autumn leaves. People had stopped counting.
No, the problem was surely deeper. The Labour left seemed unsure as to whether it wanted to replace capitalism or to reform it. It sounded more ambitious and urgent than reformists have done before. But it was unable to explain in detail the new society it wanted. What would new Jerusalem look and feel like? Going back to 1945 wasn’t enough of an answer. Voters were unsure and suspicious. Alongside that, as Labour became more and more clearly the party of the younger and metropolitan British, it found itself campaigning on issues ranging from transgender rights to a wholesale rejection of Britain’s imperial history, which baffled or alienated many traditional voters. Anti-Semitism in the party gobsmacked ordinary voters: they found it disturbing and didn’t understand where it came from. Corbyn’s enthusiasm for overseas revolutionaries was a symbol of a wider, essentially cultural, problem.
For Labour, there is a lot of hard thinking to be done. Getting the right balance between a different role for the state on the one hand, and the new socially liberal agenda on the other, will be a delicate task. It’s going to need a big thinker, of greater persuasive power, who has an instinctive understanding of today’s Britain. And whoever that may be, Johnson will be trying to block their opportunities at every stage. He won’t make it easy. There is no great, tearing hurry to put in place a new leadership. It would be better to get it right, road testing different candidates, agendas and ideas, than jump into a new mistake.
But there is no road forward in this new political landscape, no new leadership, that doesn’t start by acknowledging the scale of the reshaping caused by Boris Johnson’s provincial revolution. He didn’t do it all by himself, of course. He was able, opportunistically, to work on the economic and social changes he found around him. But he has done it very skilfully – and that is, historically, how political revolutions happen.