13 December 2019

Even in victory, the Tories must take stock

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So, after all those tweets and takes and polls, they got it done. The Tories won a majority, and not just any majority – a stonking majority, the party’s best result since the Thatcher years, and one which has truly redrawn the electoral map.

Chunks of former industrial towns that were for years unimpeachably Labour turned blue. The ‘Red Wall’ that Conservative strategists had talked about did not so much crack as tumble. Workington, Bolsover, Great Grimsby and, perhaps most emblematically, Tony Blair’s old seat of Sedgefield all fell to the Johnsonian onslaught.

But it wasn’t just Labour that got pummelled. As David Cameron’s former spin doctor Craig Oliver  noted, “the Remain cause has taken a battering”. A second referendum should now become a cause only of die-hard Europhiles, most of whom may now realise there’s more to life than trying to deny other people’s democratic rights.

For Conservative supporters today will feel not just triumphal, but hugely cathartic. After years of scrabbling around with tight-knit parliamentary arithmetic, the party now has the luxury of a hearty majority – no more pandering to particular factions or trying to get opposition MPs on side. This will be a Tory government with its own agenda, and the means to enact it.

Still, even in victory there is cause for reflection. This is the most fragile of thumping wins, because it was built on a very specific set of circumstances. The particular grievances of Brexit made fertile ground for Boris Johnson’s cathartic, ever-repeated slogan, Get Brexit Done. But that is an inherently time-limited proposition, and one that will hopefully have run its course by the end of next year.

That means the Tories will be left with an open expanse of domestic policy to try to hold on to the swathes of northern and middle England that they managed to win over at this election. These are not, by any measure, naturally Conservative seats, and many have been won with slender majorities.

As Mr Johnson noted in his victory speech, this election has meant taking on the trust of people who have never voted Conservative before: “We cannot, must not, let them down…we must recognise the incredible reality that we now speak as a one nation Conservative party for everyone from Woking to Workington, from Kensington to Clwyd South, from Surrey Heath to Sedgefield”.

And if his party is to have any chance of holding on to these previously unlikely Tory constituencies, Mr Johnson and his team will have to address the lot of people who have been left behind for many years. Leaving the EU will mean nothing if it is not accompanied with decisive and immediate change for the people who voted for it.

And that big economic challenge is accompanied by a fevered moment for the British constitution. The Scottish Nationalists have once more swept the board north of the border, and for the first time ever there are more nationalist than unionist MPs in Northern Ireland. Constitutionaly wrangles, and another referendum on independence, could come to define this term.

So, Mr Johnson can certainly allow himself a moment to pet Dilyn the dog and reflect on a campaign well fought – but he’s got a very big five years ahead.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX