How Boris & Brexit remade British politics

Ex No 10 insider: The victorious Conservatives have metamorphosed into something like a European people's party. Here's what business can expect.

Last Updated: 13 Dec 2019

If there has been a second English Civil War raging over Brexit for the past three or four years, it is now over. The great generals of Remain have been thoroughly routed. Gone are Grieve and Gauke, Bercow and Hammond, Clarke and Swinson. Parliament and the Conservative Party have been purged, the once-mighty Remain alliance collapsed in its scrap for the wooden spoon.

Brexit itself isn’t over of course - getting a decent free trade deal will be challenging to say the least, especially by the end of next year - but the Prime Minister has won a large enough mandate to leave the EU at the end of January and, crucially, wrested full control of the UK’s negotiating position. 

There is therefore no longer the need to pander to minority interests such as the ERG or the Tory wets, and no longer any threat of an imminent election, allowing Johnson the pragmatist room to find a workable compromise with the EU.

Johnson’s real accomplishment - his real legacy, potentially - is less about getting Brexit done and more about creating a new party from within the Conservatives, a little like Tony Blair did with New Labour. He has pieced together a coalition of middle class shires and working class towns in England and Wales, at the very same time as Labour’s coalition of intelligentsia, students, workers and Scots has finally collapsed.

It is interesting that the language of a ‘People’s Government’ has been invoked. In many ways, this new Tory party has the look of a European popular or people’s party, operating at a high strategic level, able to move with opinion and willing to take policies from across the political spectrum if they appeal to the base.

Do not expect continuity with the Cameron or May eras. This will be a fiscally liberal government. Beyond Brexit, they won over traditional Labour voters with pledges to create opportunity, with investment in schools, hospitals and infrastructure, a reminder of the best of Blair, alongside a focus on socially conservative policies on crime and immigration not seen since Thatcher.

In execution terms, this will be a muscular premiership, with a leader willing to challenge the status quo and break the rules to get things done, intolerant of scrutiny and insistent on a positive message even when that flies in the face of the facts. This Prime Minister will play to his base and, while the talk of a one nation party will persist, he will realise that it will be harder to convert his opponents than it will be to please his new and existing supporters.

The Tory manifesto was light on detail when it came to key issues like social care. This offers an opportunity to shape a new popular agenda, but also carries a risk of challenge from the House of Lords, which is obliged by convention only to acquiesce to manifesto commitments and in which the Conservatives sit in minority. 

For Labour, with Brexit and its aftermath now owned by the Conservatives in full, this might ultimately be seen as a good election to lose, though not to lose this badly. Gripped tight by the hard left, it’s hard to see a quick route back for the party. Expect a bitter internal feud in the aftermath of this historic reversal. Any new leader will need to find a way to articulate an agenda and tone that breaks out from its new base of socially liberal city dwellers.

The crumb of comfort for Labour is the hope that voters have lent their support to Johnson solely to get Brexit done, and may return afterwards, but this crumb is likely to have gone stale after five, probably ten years in the wilderness.

For business, this is clearly a more optimistic future than the prospect of a nationalising Labour government, but the position is nuanced - there is an underlying skepticism of global business among the public at large, and I would expect a strong focus on entrepreneurs and small business rather than big corporations, as well as an inflow of new investment.

Having won the war Boris Johnson must now win the peace and deliver on his promises if he is to take advantage of this huge electoral success. He doesn’t have a Blair 1997 or 2001 landslide, but he does have the best Tory majority since 1987. 

New Conservative voters will need to see the optimism they feel about Brexit and Johnson in their wallets, and in the infrastructure and public services around them, if they are to be converted permanently. 

With an eye to a long tenure in Downing Street and to his legacy, Johnson will do everything he can to make sure that in 2024 these people still believe. Whether that optimism survives contact with the reality of getting Brexit done and a return to deficit spending remains to be seen. 

Image credit: WPA Pool / Pool via Getty images


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