Boris Johnson Won’t Unite Britain—He’ll Keep Dividing It
The U.K.’s new prime minister is likely to double down on culture wars and nativist rhetoric to hold on to his new electorate.
As the clock struck 10 p.m. on Dec. 12 and the BBC revealed the results of the exit poll for the 2019 British general election, a state of shock swept the nation. Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party was on track to winning a thumping 80-seat parliamentary majority. When all the votes were counted, the Tories took 365 seats, 48 more than it managed in 2017, while its main opponents, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, suffered its worst defeat in 84 years.
Johnson’s Tories achieved this historic landslide by winning in Labour’s traditional heartlands in the north of England, capturing seats that had in many cases never elected a Conservative member of Parliament before. The constituency of Bishop Auckland turned blue for the first time in its 134-year history, while nearby Sedgefield, once represented by Labour leader Tony Blair, backed the Tories for the first time since the 1930s.
Labour has been losing its grip on these former mining communities and post-industrial provinces—many of which had voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum—for decades. Finally, in this election, it became clear that Johnson’s promise to “get Brexit done” had decisively broken those old tribal loyalties that had held firm for generations.
This reconfiguration of the electoral map means that Johnson can effectively rule unopposed. He can pursue whichever form of Brexit he likes and will have no trouble pushing through his domestic agenda—whatever that may be.
But as he acknowledged in a triumphant speech in front of Downing Street on the afternoon of Dec. 13, the Tory coalition now stretches “from Woking to Workington,” all the way from the affluent, traditionally Conservative shires in the south of England to the rust belt towns in the north of the country. And although these disparate voters might be superficially united by a socially conservative worldview and a rabid devotion to Brexit, they are divided by fundamentally opposed economic interests: the former tend to favor tax cuts, while the latter tend to rely on the welfare state.
The Conservative Party is also the longtime home of billionaire financial donors and libertarian, Thatcherite politicians. So once the euphoria of this win begins to subside, Johnson will have to devise a way of satisfying the many competing interests that his party now serves.
After all, his new supporters backed Brexit in 2016, but they seemingly did so in the expectation that it would lead to a moment of national renewal—as Johnson and his allies in the Vote Leave campaign promised. The Tories have forged a transactional electoral coalition, and if Johnson fails to make good on his promises, it will come as no surprise to see the new Johnson voters swing away from the Tories in 2024 as dramatically as they swung away from Labour in 2019.
Johnson appears to understand the balancing act that awaits him. In his victory speech, he acknowledged that many of these first-time Conservatives had merely “lent” his party their votes and that they “may intend to return to Labour next time around” adding that “we will never take your support for granted.”
If this is true and Johnson has a serious desire to keep this fractious electoral coalition together, he will need to convince both his party’s base and the vast majority of its MPs—including two of his most senior cabinet ministers, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Home Secretary Priti Patel—to abandon their small-state ideological moorings in favor of a more redistributive economic program.
They might even have to accept a softer post-Brexit relationship with Brussels, seeing as it is these Leave-voting constituencies that are likely to be hardest hit by Britain’s departure from the EU. As became clear last week, working-class Leave voters are no longer weighed down by party allegiances. Just two years ago, they backed Labour to deny the Tories a parliamentary majority. On Thursday, the Labour vote fell by more than 10 points on average in the most ardently pro-Leave seats, triggering the landslide that swept Johnson to power.
Logic suggests that satisfying this new constituency is likely to place Johnson on a collision course with the Thatcherite wing of his party—particularly the hardline Euroskeptics in the European Research Group, who have proved dogmatically resistant to any sort of compromise. What seems more likely, however, is that Johnson will attempt to sidestep any potential confrontation by doubling down on the culture war that lies at the heart of the Brexit debate.
For Tory Euroskeptics, so-called regulatory divergence from the EU is the ultimate prize of Brexit; in other words, they want a sovereign trade policy and full control over other policies on which EU member states must converge. And although he appears invincible now, Johnson will be well aware that this wing of his party has sunk the premierships of the three Conservative prime ministers who preceded him.
He might have the numbers to stare down any parliamentary rebellions, but accepting any arrangements that might restrict the government’s ability to deregulate and strike trade deals with third countries (such as remaining in the EU customs union, a proposal that ultimately cost Theresa May her premiership) would reopen the fratricidal rift that has ravaged the Conservative Party for the past 30 years.
By his own admission, Johnson is a man whose “policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.” So to avoid getting himself embroiled in a civil war against dozens of his MPs, his party’s donors, and Britain’s right-wing press, Johnson is expected to pursue a looser relationship with Europe that suits the aims of Tory Euroskeptics more than the former Labour voters who propelled him to victory. And although this is certain to damage the U.K. economy, Johnson will gamble that the impact will not be perceptible to the average voter because as Anand Menon, the director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, has observed, “economies are complicated. Noticing change is hard, and attributing it harder still. As the impact of Brexit plays out, any number of competing explanations for weaker economic performance could be suggested.”
To offset the consequences of a hard break, Johnson will attempt to keep this constituency on his side by combining Trumpian demagoguery that appeals to their nationalistic instincts with an economic policy that some have described as “reactionary Keynesianism.”
By abandoning the pursuit of deficit reduction and taking advantage of low borrowing costs, the British government will be able to modestly increase spending on health care, hospitals, nurses, and police—which will allow Johnson to fulfill some of the promises that he made during the election campaign. And while this statist approach might be deeply unpalatable to the Tory right, they’re likely to accept it with few complaints, safe in the knowledge that, unlike the U.K.’s post-Brexit relationship with Brussels, public spending can be easily readjusted—that is, cut—in the future.
In the aftermath of the election, many commentators argued that spending money on the north will be key to retaining these new Tory voters. Of course, the more Johnson’s government invests in the region’s public services, the easier this will be. But the Brexit vote was arguably driven more by culture than economics—that’s why, despite all the warnings of economic meltdown, support for Leave has remained remarkably solid. Brexit is, first and foremost, a backlash against the liberal, metropolitan values represented by Remain that have long dominated British society.
These new Conservative voters don’t simply feel economically left behind, they feel culturally abandoned by a Labour Party that has, over the past several decades, pursued a political agenda driven by such issues as social justice, human rights, and environmentalism that have little resonance with its traditional base. So instead of trying to outspend Labour, Johnson is likely to appeal to the social values of his new voters—which some observers have described bluntly as “fund the NHS, hang the pedophiles”—by espousing populist, nationalistic rhetoric and implementing authoritarian domestic policies in areas such as crime and immigration.
There were already signs of this during the election campaign: Just days before last week’s vote, Johnson complained that EU migrants “treat the U.K. as though it’s basically part of their own country.” Contemporary voters want a leader who serves as an avatar; coherence on ideology and policy is secondary.
After years of watching slick, media-trained politicians whom they can’t relate to, voters want to feel like their guy is in charge. U.S. President Donald Trump talks the way that many of his voters talk. Johnson has crafted his image as a politician as a friend you could go to the pub with and have a laugh. And even though he’s very much a gold-plated member of the establishment, he’s not afraid to offend liberal sensitivities with politically incorrect, race-baiting remarks. He will stick to this rhetoric because it makes left-behind voters feel like he’s giving the cosmopolitan elite a kicking. It’s a regular reminder that they’re winning the culture war even if their circumstances aren’t changing very much.
True to form, shortly after his victory, Johnson threatened to cut the BBC’s funding. Many provincial voters regard the broadcaster as a bastion of London elitism and left-wing bias. Just yesterday, it emerged that the government intends to allow lower courts to overturn EU laws after Brexit, which would speed up the process of rolling back environmental regulations and workers’ rights. To justify this move, a Johnson spokesperson argued that “This is an important change that will ensure we do not face a legal bottleneck and inadvertently stay bound by EU rulings for many years,” adding that “we will take back control of our laws, and disentangle ourselves from the EU’s legal order, just as was promised to the British people.” This statement proves that Johnson plans to drum up support for his right-wing agenda by cloaking it in cheap populist demagoguery.
Likewise, the Conservatives’ election manifesto reiterated the party’s commitment to ending free movement from the EU, promising, “There will be fewer lower-skilled migrants and overall numbers will come down.” These messages have been perfectly calibrated to appeal to a set of voters who see cultural change as compounding their feelings of insecurity—economic and otherwise.
When immigration numbers start to fall, Johnson will be able to claim that he has eased the burden on the National Health Service and schools, which can easily be spun as equivalent to extra funding, much like his party’s deceptive election promise to hire 50,000 new nurses when the real figure is much lower. On crime, the party has promised to “introduce tougher sentencing” and “end automatic halfway release” for serious offenders, which is an unabashed appeal to some Brexit voters’ well-documented authoritarian values .
But, perhaps most important of all, once Johnson’s withdrawal agreement is voted through Parliament and Britain leaves the institutional structures of the EU on Jan. 31, 2020, the government will be able to claim that it has honored the will of the people by nominally “getting Brexit done.”
The fact that this will only be the first step in the country’s departure will be irrelevant: Johnson will spin this as a major victory, which he will be able to commemorate by reintroducing blue passports to replace the EU’s red ones. This is a powerful symbolic gesture that will remind politically alienated northern Leave voters that they have finally been listened to.
So even if Johnson’s government doesn’t significantly improve the material interests of its new electorate, his combination of targeted policy initiatives and culture war rhetoric might just convince them that they’re winning the battle of values against cosmopolitan elites.
This could be enough to neutralize the appeal of the Labour Party—because while Labour can present a better economic offer to voters, it is far tougher for the party to move to the right on cultural issues than it is for the Tories to move left on economics.