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Boris Johnson’s election win means we’re all heading off a cliff

Martin Rowson's cartoon for The New European. - Credit: Archant

Our speed might have accelerated but the destination is still unknown.

Not much of a cliff-hanger, was it? Despite every squalid disappointment of this dull, dishonest election and all that driving rain, Boris Johnson’s winter gamble has paid off. Now his troubles really begin. He has refashioned his party in Nigel Farage’s harsher image and has promised to deliver many impossibles. He has the Commons majority he asked for. No more excuses for the World King. No more hope of reversing Brexit. That re-set Brussels clock is ticking again towards a weak deal, a no-deal or a One Nation chameleon’s U-turn.

Some manner of landslide was obvious from the moment the BBC’s Huw Edwards and his colleagues on rival stations unveiled their exit poll’s prediction of an 86-seat Conservative majority on the stroke of ten on Thursday night. At that point many disaffected voters must have gone to the pub, to bed or back to their Netflix box set. The old political soldier in me merely put the kettle on. What about all those tactical Remain votes, eh?

Not even 20,000 voters interviewed in 144 constituencies are infallible and this has been a difficult campaign to call. I was particularly suspicious of the poll’s suggestion that the SNP might regain 55 of Scotland’s 59 seats, one short of their 2015 tally. So were SNP spokesmen. Nor did local Tory star, Ruth Davidson, immediately get her kit off for a skinny dip in Loch Ness – as she had promised to do if Nicola Sturgeon’s squad topped 50. As England swung Tory, its hegemony was matched by the SNP in Scotland. A dangerously polarising result for the Union in Northern Ireland too. Not to mention in London – richest and reddest.

It took until 11.26pm on Thursday night to get real data. Even the first declared win – Labour’s Chi Onwurah, a Remainer-turned-Soft-Brexiter who backed a People’s Vote, comfortably held Newcastle Central – didn’t finally dispel my caution. Houghton and Sunderland South was more narrowly held too. Only when Blyth Valley, on the old Northumberland coalfield, went Tory on a 10% swing (“not a sentence I ever expected to utter,” Huw Edwards admitted) and victor, Ian Levy, singled out “Boris” for personal thanks did I formally concede.

Do north east Leave voters resent well-paid local Nissan workers as much as they do London bankers, I wonder? Blyth had only been the 91st most marginal seat. With Thirsty Nigel’s help, Labour’s Red Wall had been breached. Big swings down in Swindon North and Nuneaton confirmed the wider pattern, though it was patchy. The pound perked up. Remain-voting Putney went Labour on a swing of 6.4%. “Five more years of Thatcherite austerity,” warned the winner. Whoops, had rock-solid Workington on the remote Cumbrian coast just fallen to a Tory – as it did on the eve of Thatcherism in 1977? It had. As the night wore on, all those hopeful centrists, Rebel Alliance defectors from Labour and the Tories fell under the Boris bulldozer. So did Tony Blair’s Sedgefield.

Not that the talking heads wasted any alibi time as they waited for blood on the TV studio floor. A funereal John McDonnell was first to deploy the shadow cabinet’s private ‘line to take’ briefing note (leaked to the BBC), insisting that the looming defeat was all about Brexit, not Jeremy Corbyn’s toxic reputation – quasi Marxist, magic money tree advocate and anti-Semitic – which Labour canvassers have been reporting. Jeremy actually did well in the campaign, he argued loyally.

In their own parallel universe, Tory talking heads did little better. Wishful One Nation moderates predicted that Johnson is now free to be his liberal self without listening to Brexit’s Spartan headbangers like Mark (“Gun in my mouth”) Francois. Mr Francois thought otherwise. Thirsty Nigel was characteristically ungracious but claimed the credit for saving Brexit from the Remoaners in the spring. He didn’t denying disappearing to become Donald Trump’s warm-up man next year. His estranged mate, Arron Banks, cheerfully declared: “The Brexit Party is over.”

As for the SNP, as its confidence rose it argued that its very specific campaign slogan in Scotland had given Nicola Sturgeon a mandate for a 2020 referendum of her own. So much for McBoris’s appeal to blue collar Scots Unionists. But hopes of extracting a deal from prime minister Corbyn evaporated. Will Scots risk leaving the UK as well as the EU, hoping to rejoin the 27 in due course? A big ask.

In Wrexham, Sarah Atherton became Wales’s first ever woman Tory MP. After three years of ugly stalemate at Stormont the centrist Alliance beat the DUP in North Down and the moderate nationalists of the SDLP took two seats – Foyle from Sinn Fein and Belfast North from the DUP’s hardline Nigel Dodds. Belfast North went SF. The DUP’s stubborn defiance of the region’s pro-Remain majority cost Unionism its historic dominance. Its much-trumpeted leverage over Theresa May has led to Johnson “surrendering” (copyright J Rees-Mogg) that border down the Irish Sea, as Dublin wanted. Not much the DUP can do about that now.

No one seemed much to care what the Lib Dems thought until Jo Swinson made a gracious concession of defeat in East Dumbartonshire. No Corbynesque hanging around as party leader for “I’m with Jo”. Her misjudged decision to go for revoking Article 50 was confirmed as a mistake – a strategic opportunity to deflect Brexit thereby squandered. The Lib Dem share of the vote went up by 50% (by 4.2% or one million votes), but gained no seats. By pushing Thirsty Nigel under his bus, Johnson had consolidated most of the Leave camp. Despite those sometimes contradictory tactical voting websites, Remainers remained divided. Apportioning the blame will be part of the inquest.

Whether or not he believes it (he doesn’t), the shadow chancellor has to defend his bearded comrade. The battle for the Corbyn succession has been running for weeks, less under the radar than the parties’ social media campaigns. Are middle class activists, many of them old enough to know better, yet tired of losing after four defeats – as they were by 1963 and 1994? In the immediate aftermath, Twitter warriors leapt into the breach. Change the leader, not his oh-so-popular policies – “Corbynism without Corbyn” – was the predictable cry.

Surely they can’t keep their “present but not involved” El Cid propped up on his horse for much longer? Ken Livingstone says not. Corbyn signalled he would not be rushing to his neglected allotment on his bike – free at last! Veteran Bennite agitator, Momentum’s Jon Lansman, who has vowed not to let the centre left regain control of the party machine for 30 years – twice the time the Blairites took – kept saying “but our policies were popular”. In the same BBC studio TNE’s Alastair Campbell rightly called that “delusional”. Like many of us, including Lansman, he’s seen this movie before: Anti-Semitism, “everything you want for free” spending promises and Jeremy Corbyn were the problem. Alastair forgot to add fence-sitting on Brexit, a policy of equivocation and confusion for so many voters.

Remain’s Jess Phillips wasn’t taking the party line. Nor was Leave’s Caroline Flint. Stoke Central’s moderate Gareth Snell, declaring himself defeated before the votes were counted, was furious, sharing the blame between the Corbyn-McDonnell Left leadership and Stop Brexit Remain colleagues in London – he means you, Keir and Emily – seeking to advance their leadership ambitions at the expense of Leave-voting, hard-pressed towns like Stoke. Labour’s inquest will be a bloody one. Is it impossible to win in 2024? Not necessarily, if they get their act together with a decent leader. The Tories’ last such triumph – Margaret Thatcher’s 100-seat win in 1987 – was quickly followed by hubris, division and disaster.

So what clues did we get from the prime minister’s victory speech at 7.30 on Friday morning? His backing band, “Trust Me” Govey took the opportunity to tell Jewish voters they no longer “live in fear” of a Corbyn government. Not a consensual note, it must have reminded Muslims that the Tories too have deep pockets of prejudice. In front of a “People’s Government” logo – a very unBritish bit of Soviet populism – Johnson did better. He spoke of a “new dawn”. How many times have we heard that declaration of renewal down the decades?

Boris then reverted to the full Boris. He promised everything to everyone with a gusto worthy of John McDonnell. “The real Boris is much more like Michael Heseltine than he is a Margaret Thatcher,” whisper old school mainstream Tories in hope. Not much evidence of that during a campaign when he hid from the media (in a fridge even) in content-lite, soft photo-ops – Thatcher did the same in 1979 – and actually seized the phone of a reporter who confronted him with that little boy lying on a Leeds hospital floor.

It was his worst campaign moment, but it did not stop the surge. Johnson managed to cut through with hacked-off working class voters in the Midlands and north of England. Even Bolsover, Dennis Skinner’s lair since 1970, fell to the Tories, the last working miner to leave the Commons. Remember, as populists grasp down the ages, that the crowd dislikes professional elites, the metropolitan know-alls who talk down to ordinary folk, tell them to eat fewer burgers and do more exercise.

Johnson now has a new coalition to manage and manage it he must if he is not to see his decisive mandate dissipated as Thatcher and so many others have done before. “Get Brexit Done,” the crowd roared back at his behest in his dawn rally of party workers. But what does that mean? We still don’t know. The EU27’s leaders, always reluctant to abandon their hopes of a reversal of the 2016 referendum, don’t know whether to expect flexibility or reckless intransigence from his newly-achieved strength. Don’t forget, there is a new regime at the Brussels Commission too.

Donald Trump piled in to dangle “a massive new trade deal”. Working class Labour-to-Tory defectors did not vote for that. They want more social protection and better jobs, not a fresh assault from ‘America First’ market forces which are yet to do much good to embattled blue collar workers in the US Rust Belt. Yet in his moment of triumph Johnson is stressing his “One Nation Conservative” credentials. He is saying he will not abandon the left-behind regions now that he has had his wicked way with their votes.

Theresa May said much the same in 2016 and in her own doomed election. Johnson has even fewer fixed convictions except self-belief. Expectations may not be high, but they are certainly not zero. A formal departure from the EU on January 31 now looks a certainty. The latest withdrawal bill will start next week, but the real business – a future trade agreement – will trigger a crisis by June: Will he scuttle and run (as he did this year) or seek an extension to ensure a more orderly future. My hunch is that Johnson will talk big but proceed warily across a host of policies on which he has adopted contradictory positions (HS2? Heathrow’s third runway?). His government has been poorly organised, his team unimpressive. Brussels talked on Friday about a “truly level playing field”, an ominous phrase which translates as trade-offs in the coming talks in which British haste equals British concessions. Listening to talking heads chatter on TV in the background during the election coverage I kept picking up the word “trust”. Johnson needs to repair it if he can. That audience laughter when he invoked it during a televised debate was one of the campaign’s defining moments. He could start by reforming election law to regulate social media spending, fake news feeds and codify the rules for TV appearances. He won’t hurry.

How did you vote? How did I vote? Glad you asked. To my considerable surprise I found myself casting my first-ever vote for the Greens. I reasoned that my admirable local Labour MP was at no risk of losing his seat – his majority was barely dented despite pro-Remain defections like mine – but would only have voted Labour, Corbyn, economic madness, anti-Semitism and all, if I had been sure that the party overall would lose the general election. Silly though it now looks in the light of such a decisive result, I couldn’t be sure. It was a strange election. But climate change, not parochial and misguided Brexit, is the existential challenge we face. So for once I was happy to indulge in a gesture vote.

Never slow to adapt their views to changed circumstances, some pundits pronounced this the third transformative general election since the Second World War. After 1945 and 1979, a Tory party less liberal, less bourgeois or metropolitan, has prevailed, one with a solid nationwide base in northern cities as well as small towns and villages. Well, maybe, maybe not. Thatcher thought she had that, but Blair took it away from her. Nothing is ever so good or so bad as it looks on the day.

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