Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
5 June 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 11:13am

Despite all reports, the election wasn’t a landslide – and Johnson may be about to discover that reality

By Stephen Bush

The 2019 parliament will begin being sworn in today, and Boris Johnson will welcome the new intake of Conservative MPs with a reception at parliament, while the papers are full of leaks about a looming Whitehall re-organisation. Also coming down the pipe in the government’s first 46 days: the  Brexit withdrawal agreement bill and a health bill, which will enshrine the manifesto commitment to spend an extra £34bn on the NHS by 2024.

The agenda reflects two things. Firstly the political imperative to be seen to follow through on Johnson’s campaign promise to resolve Brexit and move on to other things. And, secondly, an intellectual commitment by Downing Street to reform Whitehall: an intermittent refrain on Dominic Cummings’ blog, but also the golden thread of how Johnson ran City Hall, where he relied upon a handful of super-administrators to keep the show on the road.

Can it be done? The government’s majority of 80 means that, yes, we can say with confidence that the UK will leave the European Union before 31 January, and yes, Whitehall will be reorganised, though the leaked detail looks more like sensible tidying up of Theresa May’s botched reorganisation rather than a genuine revolution. But can they pull off the other, and perhaps more important, part of the “get Brexit done” pledge and keep it off the telly for the next five years? More importantly, is that £34bn of extra cash going to unlock major and visible improvements in the performance of the health service while the cuts to local government funding and the pressures on adult social care remain in place? (While cutting national insurance, and keeping that, value-added tax and income tax flat or falling for the next parliament and reducing debt as a share of GDP.)

Don’t forget that though the papers and the pundits keep describing this as a “landslide”, it wasn’t. It’s a landslide defeat for Labour, just as the 2005 election was a landslide defeat for the Conservatives, but in terms of the overall Conservative majority and their number of seat gains, it is short of any landslide you might care to name. This is the case regardless of whether you define landslide as the number of constituency gains (like those enjoyed by Clement Attlee, Tony Blair and David Cameron in 2010) or the size of the majority (like those enjoyed by Attlee, Blair and Margaret Thatcher).

Johnson’s victory instead falls in that smaller category of large working majorities enjoyed by Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson in 1966, and Blair after 2005. Of course, neither Thatcher nor Blair were immune from political setbacks even with their landslide majority – don’t forget it was the landslide parliament of 1987 that ousted Thatcher over the poll tax – and the governments of Eden, Macmillan, Wilson and late period Blair had to retreat over a number of issues.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

That’s where the government’s health bill might be more dramatic – and perhaps more of a bruising start to Johnson’s second term – than we expect. Something that many Conservatives have come to rue is that the Heath and Social Care Act created an NHS England that they cannot directly control, which both requests more funds and largely decides how they are spent. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the new health bill includes a tidying up exercise of the Act to give the Secretary of State for Health more control over the health service – and anything that reopens that Act, even with a majority of 80, might end up being a more politically lively event than expected.

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up