In the first of two articles on the outcome of the UK’s general election, George Candon ponders its long-term impact on the British political duopoly of Conservative and Labour.
The UK general election has delivered what it says on the tin. Successfully defined and contested by Boris Johnson as the ‘Brexit election’, it has given the prime minister the thumping majority he needs to get over the parliamentary impasse and, as he puts it, ‘deliver Brexit’ by 31 January 2020.
It was also an unambiguous confirmation of the Brexit referendum results: the English and Welsh want Brexit, Scotland and Northern Ireland do not.
Tactical voting spectacularly failed in its mission to hold back a Tory tide across Great Britain. Labour’s Great Northern Wall was well and truly breached, where constituency after constituency that had been solidly red since the 1930s tumbled to blue. Mr. Johnson’s conversion of these seats was predicated on three key elements: Brexit fatigue and the resonance of his ‘get Brexit done’ and ‘respect the referendum result’ messages; being unchallenged by the Brexit party, so not splitting the Tory vote; and widespread antipathy for Mr. Corbyn among traditional Labour voters, perceived by many as an arrogant, Islington-dwelling, metropolitan, terrorist-sympathising, antisemitic Trotskyite (all intended as insults).
What’s interesting is what the breaching of that wall could mean for longer-term British politics. Following the election Mr. Johnson said that many traditional Labour voters have ‘lent’ the Tories their vote, and that he won’t take them for granted. He has made much of being a one-nation Tory, and his comfortable Westminster majority could allow him to sideline the ERG, negotiate a softish Brexit in the future trade negotiations, and tack left. Although that doesn’t mean he won’t be prone to some sabre rattling and dramatic moves, as the announced bill to rule out an extension on the deadline for a trade deal shows.
He certainly has an eye for his own posterity. The boy who would be ‘king of the world’ would love nothing more than to be the Conservative leader who makes that breach permanent rather than an historical blip, the glorious leader to romp home with a second landslide and be spoken of historically in the same breath as Thatcher and Blair as an election-winning machine.
And in that mission he will be vigorously supported by an army of over 100 new Conservative MPs who will work damned hard to hold onto their newly-acquired seats when they face the electorate again four or five years down the line. That cohort alone represents a pretty solid anchor to keep Mr. Johnson tethered to one-nation Toryism. The Conservative party has often been referred to as the most successful political movement in European history. Its impressive longevity is in no small part due to its ability to completely reinvent itself. This election may have inadvertently caused another such radical reinvention.
The Tories have always been essentially an English party. They have ebbed and flowed electorally in Wales and Scotland, but as this election has clearly demonstrated, given the UK’s population distribution, they can win a parliamentary majority on English votes alone (they would still have an absolute majority without their 20 Welsh and Scottish seats). Labour, conversely, is a truly British party, dependent on support as much in Wales and Scotland as in England for its electoral success. Labour and the Tories suffered equally in the face of the SNP onslaught in Scotland. But with such overwhelming support in England, the Conservative and Unionist Party can safely ignore the Celtic fringe nations in a way that Labour cannot. The irony is that while Labour has traditionally been more favorable to devolution and self-determination, its political success is also dependent on sense of collective British identity.
But Labour has been routed to just 23 seats across Wales and Scotland – almost wiped out in the latter where it clings forlornly on in Edinburgh-South alone. It has suffered its worst defeat in 80 years. Its rump representation is concentrated in the major urban centres of England and Wales. A likely leadership candidate, Sir Keir Starmer, has urged his party to return to being a ‘broad church’. But dominated by the hard-left Momentum movement, the party may replace Mr. Corbyn with another leftist leader; if it does, it may well consign itself to the opposition benches for the next decade.
The question is whether we are witnessing an inversion of the traditional British political narrative, where the Tories now represent the mythical honest, hard-working Briton, and the Labour party a disconnected, intellectual, metropolitan, internationalist urban elite. Only time will tell. But the demolition of Labour’s red wall across the north of England represents a seismic shift unimaginable a short decade ago. Could it also represent the final throes of the realignment of British politics in a post-industrial society?
 -6 and -7 seats respectively