Boris Johnson undoubtedly took a risk by holding an election in winter while Brexit was still in limbo, but today this gamble has paid off almost beyond his most optimistic expectations.
With one result yet to declare, the Conservatives have won 364 out of 650 seats, leaving them with a majority of 78, the highest margin of victory since the 1980s. The party made major gains at the expense of Labour, which fell back to 203 MPs, its lowest tally since 1983. The Scottish National Party picked up 13 seats from the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and now have 48 seats. One of these gains was at the expense of the Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, capping a disappointing night for the party which banked everything on a pledge to cancel Brexit but ended up with just one more MP than 2017.
The Prime Minister’s landslide victory means he now has the freedom to govern alone without having to rely on either the votes of his own party’s hard-right Brexit fringe, or of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists. The sheer size of the victory suggests Johnson will steer his government in a liberal-centrist direction, which many believe to be closer to his personal instincts, and away from the right-populist agenda which his detractors believe he embraced out of expediency to become Prime Minister.
Johnson hinted that such a move might be on the cards in speeches he’s given this morning, immediately after the result in his own West London seat was announced, and later once the scale of the Tory victory was confirmed. After obligatory references to the key campaign slogan of ‘getting Brexit done’, Johnson stressed he wants to govern as a ‘One Nation’ conservative.
Although the Conservatives’ light-touch manifesto and safety-first campaign didn’t give away many clues as to what this might involve, the scale of the gains the Tory party has made in Labour’s heartlands in the Midlands and North of England imply that Boris’ ‘One Nation’ will be quite different to that of previous Conservative leaders.
Instead of the patrician, small-state strand embodied in figures like Nicholas Soames and Ken Clarke who were forced to leave the party prior to the election, we are likely to see an increased emphasis on ‘levelling up’ opportunity, regional growth and income levels across the country, particularly in post-industrial areas, by spending more on key public services and infrastructure. Little wonder then that Mr Johnson has highlighted more money for the NHS and increasing educational opportunity as his top domestic priorities, after Brexit.
A softer Brexit?
On Brexit itself, Johnson now has a mandate – and the votes – to get his revised Brexit deal through Parliament. This could happen as early as next week, paving the way for Brexit to finally happen at the end of January and a springboard for moving forward with the negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship in the new year.
The Prime Minister has said he wants to conclude this process by the end of 2020, which in practical terms means having the broad parameters of a deal in place by next June. But this accelerated timetable would leave little room to agree anything other than a relatively mild form of Brexit in which the UK and EU remain in close regulatory alignment. This would tally with comments Johnson made on the campaign trail that the UK’s automotive sector would continue to be closely integrated with European supply chains.
But it would also leave less scope for the UK to diverge from the EU and strike its own trade deals with the United States and other countries. This is likely to be a source of contention for the pro-Brexit wing of the Tory party, but with the NHS and US agri-food products, symbolised by the politically toxic issue of ‘chlorinated chicken’, already ruled out of scope of any future US-UK trade deal, it’s hard to see which sectors might be included.
Union under strain
One of the most striking aspects of the 2016 EU referendum result were the regional disparities between different parts of the UK, with England and Wales voting for Brexit, and Scotland and Northern Ireland supporting Remain.
These results have magnified this, placing the future integrity of the United Kingdom under great strain. The Scottish National Party now hold 48 out of 59 seats in Scotland, and will now push hard for a second Scottish Independence referendum. Irish nationalist parties also represent a majority of seats in Northern Ireland for the first time since the partition of Ireland, highlighting the urgent need to resume the power sharing agreement between Unionists and Nationalists in the Northern Ireland Assembly. These two challenges will in the medium term put Boris Johnson’s new ‘One Nation’ credentials, and those of the Tory party as the defender of the Union, under significant strain.
But for now at least, the Prime Minister has the opportunity to break the deadlock on Brexit which has paralysed British politics for the past three-and-a-half years.