Boris Johnson’s remarkable victory over Labour is also a victory for populism over policy. He has secured the mandate he wanted for his crude, misleading but effective slogan – to “get Brexit done” by leaving the EU on 31 January.
Mr Johnson’s presidential campaign copied the man he was desperate to keep out of the election, Donald Trump. He got the Brexit election he wanted, and persuaded enough working class people to buy his brand of economic populism. “Unleash Britain’s potential,” the second leg of Mr Johnson’s slogan, echoed “make America great again”.
The US president won over blue-collar America in 2016, offering hope to the rustbelt areas left behind by globalisation. Mr Johnson has matched that by demolishing Labour’s “red wall” of seats stretching from North Wales to the northeast, with a huge expected Conservative majority of around 80 seats, the biggest since the Margaret Thatcher era.
Mr Johnson will feel vindicated, that the end result justified the means. But this was the dirtiest, most mendacious of the 10 general elections have I have covered since I moved to the Westminster village in 1982, the last six for The Independent.
The Tory campaign was built on a false premise as well as a false promise. Mr Johnson claimed he did not want this contest. Not true: from the day he moved into Downing Street in July, his close aides talked about “the election”; the only debate was when it would take place. He decided that a contest before Brexit happened would most enhance his prospects. Then he constructed his misleading platform: parliament had blocked Brexit, and the will of the people in 2016. It was pure Trump: the people versus the establishment, an improbable strategy for an Eton-educated former member of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club.
Populists, whether on the left or right, distance themselves from their predecessors to play on the public’s grievances. Johnson proclaimed his “new government”, even though his party had been in power for nine years. He even claimed, retrospectively, he had opposed austerity in 2010, which cabinet ministers at the time do not recall.
Inconvenient truths were swept aside. MPs had not blocked Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal, as he claimed: they approved in principle the bill, implementing it by 30 votes. The Commons rightly rejected his ludicrously tight timetable for scrutinising it. A compromise on that could easily have been found. Mr Johnson wasn’t interested, opportunistically seizing the moment to propose an unnecessary election, and finding willing partners in the Liberal Democrats and SNP, who also judged a contest would serve their interest. The SNP was right, the Lib Dems were wrong.
Our outdated first-past-the-post system handed Mr Johnson a huge advantage. He knew more people might well vote for parties committed to a Final Say referendum than for the Tories. But - as proved to be the case - the Remain vote would be split between Labour and the Lib Dems. So Mr Johnson could win on about 40 per cent of the vote, a much lower threshold than would have been required in the referendum people deserved given the new facts about Brexit that have emerged since 2016.
The “us versus them” election saw the same crude populism that helped Vote Leave win the 2016 referendum. Several of the team who brought us “take back control”, now working for Mr Johnson, gave us “get Brexit done”. It is the most misleading slogan I have known in my 37 years of writing about politics. It gave voters understandably bored with Brexit the impression they would never hear the B-word again after 31 January.
By then, only the divorce from the EU will be “done”. The long-term UK-EU trade deal will not, and we learned very little about it during this election. To persuade Nigel Farage to stand down half his Brexit Party candidates, Mr Johnson rashly promised not to extend the transitional period beyond December 2020, so another no-deal cliff edge looms then. Officials in Whitehall and Brussels doubt agreement can be reached by the deadline; negotiations could take three years.
At previous elections, I have written thousands of words about Tory attacks on Labour’s tax bombshells and Labour claims that the Tories would privatise the NHS. But this campaign sunk to a new low. It was the first post-truth election. I fear it will be the new normal, not a one-off.
The unregulated online attack adverts were an inevitable American import; the UK usually copies US campaign techniques a few years later. The Tories’ Facebook, YouTube and Google ads edited the words of opponents such as Sir Keir Starmer and those of BBC journalists. Twitter spread lies by anonymous “Tory sources”, who falsely claimed a Labour activist punched Matt Hancock’s adviser outside Leeds General Infirmary. Even if not done directly by the Tories, their supporters deployed the Trumpian “fake news” label to plant seeds of doubt about a damaging story – like the false claim that the photo of the four-year-old boy on the floor of the Leeds hospital was staged.
Team Corbyn believed it could use social media to by-pass “the MSM”, the mainstream media it despises. But after a ruthless Tory machine plumbed new depths, some Corbyn allies now admit a rethink is needed: old-fashioned journalism is needed to expose abuse of the unregulated new media.
Team Boris cared little for convention: the election would be fought on his terms, not the media’s. He avoided scrutiny, calculating that chickening out of an interview with Andrew Neil was better than being mauled by him. Media outlets that did not toe the line were threatened, like Channel 4 with a review of its remit, or banned from the Boris battlebus, like the Daily Mirror. Individual journalists were boycotted, like Sky’s Kay Burley. The Trump playbook again.
Johnson allies insist he is not “Britain Trump”, as the president once called him. They point to big differences between the two leaders on issues like climate change and global trade. They insist he is the same liberal conservative who was twice elected London mayor.
Mr Johnson repeatedly described his programme as “sensible, moderate, One Nation conservatism”. But his risk-averse manifesto deliberately offered few clues about domestic policy. “It was a manifesto to get us to 13 December,” one adviser admitted.
The prime minister’s huge majority will give him a free hand on policy. Yet he remains an enigma even to Tory insiders. Ryan Shorthouse, chief executive of the liberal conservative think tank Bright Blue, believes Mr Johnson will not side with either right-wing libertarians or a rival centrist group trying to pull him in a different direction.
He told The Independent: “I don’t think there will be an intellectual consistency in a Boris government, other than focusing squarely on winning and then maintaining the support of working class people. He will need to be fiscally and socially progressive to keep their support. The politics will force him to be like that. Whether he is somebody with deep principles which align with liberal conservatism, I am not so sure.
“He is an opportunist. He will go where he is most likely to win politically. Deep down, he is probably someone who is most bothered about winning power.”
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