The dystopian nightmare in which Boris Johnson is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – I will repeat that, BORIS JOHNSON is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom! – has taken another unexpected turn. The December 12th general election has produced what should have been the result of the previous election, in 2017. It is as if the UK is trapped in some strange time warp, unable to face reality because it is not something manufactured in BoJo’s head.
Remain vs. Leave
Back on 8th June 2017 the Brexit referendum was only a year old. It was generally conceded that although support for Remain had strengthened in resolve, Leave would have again won by a narrow margin if another referendum had been held. The Conservatives were way ahead in the opinion polls, Labour had the unelectable hard leftist Jeremy Corbyn as leader and the Liberal Democrats were still in disarray after their hammering for going into coalition and supporting all the things the public had previously thought they wouldn’t.
That election should have given Theresa the healthy majority Boris will now enjoy, even though the campaign exposed her limitations. She should have gained seats in Leave voting areas which had little previous Conservative tradition because she was in charge of delivering what their inhabitants had voted for, and promising to do so. Few expected that Corbyn’s backward-looking socialism would appeal to people who felt left behind, many of whom were Brexiteers, and young, first time voters who wanted hope.
This time the situation was completely different. Boris had been elected by nobody, and continually failed to win parliamentary votes on what would have been resigning matters in the days Conservatives played by the rules. He didn’t have a majority, had kicked out 30 of his own MPs to make his position even worse and his Conservatives were rapidly shedding members and credibility, having come fifth in the last nationwide ballot, the European Parliament elections earlier this year.
He began with a significant opinion poll lead, but that narrowed as the campaign went on to make the projected result too close to call. Opinion polls on Brexit were consistently showing that Remain would win any second referendum. Corbyn had eventually come out in favour of a second referendum with an option to Remain, trying to satisfy both sides of the argument as he had always done. The Liberal Democrats were on the up, having made big gains in the Euro elections, the SNP was going to clean up again in Scotland and Johnson had spent the campaign running away from TV interviews and being booed wherever he went.
But come polling day, none of that seemed to matter. The 2019 result should have been the 2017 result, and vice versa. But reality went out of the window, as it often does when Boris Johnson is around.
What is going on? Has the world turned into a never-ending Soviet party rally, in which what people say and do bears no relation to the realities on the ground? If so, can the political process, that thing most Leave voters so despise, continue to address those realities?
Sans Culottes turn their coats
Johnson has won a big majority because traditionally Labour Leave areas voted Conservative, some for the first time ever. Old working class industrial towns in the North of England and North Wales, most of whose inhabitants would never have been seen dead voting Conservative at any other time, kicked out even Leave supporting Labour incumbents in favour of their traditional enemies, although they still remember that it was Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservatives who destroyed their communities with her version of “Socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor”.
Indeed, the Conservatives even claimed after the BBC Exit Poll prediction started coming true that they were now the party of the working class, much as the Republicans have displaced the Democrats as such in the southern United States. The same disenfranchised people, in struggling communities, who turned to Corbyn in 2017 deserted him this time because he no longer offered them an alternative future, though his policies were much the same as last time round.
This makes sense because it is Brexiteers, rather than Remainers, who have the greatest wish to break the ongoing parliamentary deadlock on all things Brexit. The longer nothing is agreed, the more that suits Remainers, who know their arguments are sounder.
Brexiteers want the Brexit process over and done with before no one will suppport it any more, and blame MPs for all the delays. Therefore the clearest pro-Brexit message resonated more than the variety of pro-Remain messages on offer, which simply add to the muddle.
The Conservative vote only improved slightly, but Labour lost almost 8% of its 2017 vote due to its opaque position on Brexit, which had evolved slowly but unconvincingly since 2017. Though Labour tried to claim that this was the only factor at play, thus justifying Corbyn’s attempts to be all things to all men on the issue, this fudging reflected badly on his leadership abilities, and made his other policies seem more extreme and less relevant.
It appears from immediate analysis that dissatisfaction with Corbyn was a bigger factor than satisfaction with Johnson. In the previously Labour areas where the Labour vote fell most sharply, the turnout also fell by more than in other places, meaning even Labour supporters stayed at home to enable the deserters to elect a Conservative, and redefine those areas as homes of protest, any protest, rather than tribal loyalty.
Everyone has a story to tell
Jeremy Corbyn announced after retaining his own seat in Remain-voting London, which saw marked swings against the Conservatives, that he will be standing down as Labour leader after a period of discussion. But at least he is still in parliament, unlike uninspiring Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, who lost her seat to the SNP (for a second time), the first time a major party leader has lost their own seat since fellow Liberal Sir Archibald Sinclair did so in 1945.
The Liberal Democrats had a greater percentage vote gain than anyone, but lost ground overall because they wanted to cancel Brexit altogether, and Remain isn’t the big idea which stops the public reminding them of the 2010-2015 coalition in a domestic election. For a party with only a handful of seats, they had an unusually high turnover of gains and losses, but these again followed the Remain/Leave pattern, the traditionally Liberal but Leave voting South-west staying out of reach whilst Remain-leaning areas in the suburbs and odd rural pockets kept the faith.
The Brexit Party, as expected, won no seats in this UK domestic election. But it did help Johnson by refusing to stand in seats held by Leave-supporting Conservatives, whilst not doing the same in seats held by Labour Leavers. Its support increased, but it remains merely an irritant, which is what it really wants, not having any desire to be held responsible for anything it advocates.
The SNP regained many seats in Scotland by combining Remain support with a demand for independence, but not most of the seats which went Conservative in 2017, against the general UK trend. It now claims to have a mandate for another Scottish independence referendum and for staying in the EU, but in a UK parliament where it is always in a small minority it will be difficult to achieve either. Nor will the EU allow it to remain a member on its own, even though Scotland is a kingdom, and therefore already technically a member in itself. It will have to go to the back of the applicant queue, which is not what Remain supporting independence advocates voted for.
Northern Ireland is also left with an identity crisis following this election. For the first time ever, it has elected more MPs from nationalist parties, which advocate a united Ireland, than Unionists who want to remain in the UK.
The reason Northern Ireland has remained in the UK up till now is that British governments have always declared the will of the majority community, the Unionists, to be sacrosanct. Now the Unionists are no longer the majority of elected Northern Ireland representatives at Westminster, the Irish border question takes on new dimensions which will make it even thornier in the years to come.
Heads in the quicksand
The Conservative campaign slogan was very simple: “Get Brexit Done”. This could have been worded differently, for example “We Will Deliver Brexit”. But the slogan was the way it was because it represents something everyone, on all sides of the Brexit argument, can relate to.
Everyone is sick of hearing about Brexit, and wants it over with. Even diehard Remainers want progress in their desired direction, even though the endless delays and parliamentary gridlock serve their cause. When solidly Labour areas vote upper class Tory Boris Johnson into power, we can conclude that the vote was not necessarily about getting out of the EU, but making the whole ghastly business go away, however that happens.
The new Conservative majority in the House of Commons should indeed pass the existing Brexit deal, and the UK should therefore leave the EU on January 31st. But even those who invented the Conservative election slogan know that leaving is not going to make Brexit go away, or even reduce the amount of time spent discussing it, at the expense of all other issues.
No country has ever left the EU. But several left another multinational organisation which collapsed within living memory – the Soviet Union. Leavers love portraying the EU as some form of Soviet-style dictatorship, but if Brexit is actually going to happen, the difference between the two will become apparent.
The Soviet Union alienated its citizens, and most members of its own ruling party, by doing things which caused hard, practical problems to them which affected their lives. State repression, enforced poverty, mismanagement of resources and constant surveillance were the legacy of Communism for many, rather than the ideological ins and outs of the system. One of the primary causes of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a sharp drop in living standards, not the political orientation of the state itself.
The EU does not have the same negative effects on people’s lives. The idea of a vast, seemingly unaccountable monolith run by people who seem anonymous, as they don’t know them from their domestic politics, which British voters have never liked. Everything which goes wrong in their lives can be blamed on this abstract idea of what the EU is, in comparison with the “Devil They Know” in the form of the UK government and parliament, as being more democratic and responsive.
The practical effects of EU policy and practice on UK voters’ lives are minimal – and if they notice them, it is usually positive things like support for poor regions and better working conditions. When the UK is out of the EU, how long will it be before hard, practical problems affecting people’s lives are seen as the fault of the concrete UK, not the abstract EU?
The concept of the dictatorial EU superstate, in which the UK has to passively accept rules made by other people, could and should have been countered more effectively by both EU and UK agencies. Instead it was fanned by made up stories about ridiculous common food regulations and the like, many of which were fabricated by somebody called Boris Johnson, when he was Brussels Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.
When the reality of life outside Europe hits home, Boris will have no one else to blame. Nor will Remainers give up their fight, knowing demographics are on their side, as the more elderly Leavers die off. Replacing EU regulations and structures will take years, a trade deal will take years. Other trade deals won’t be there and that will affect many practical things people take for granted, like transport, food and services.
Few former Soviets want to go back to that system because their practical problems were clearly created by the operation of that system, not an idea of what the system was. When UK voters see that being out of the EU creates more real life problems than the abstract idea of what the EU was did, they will not take kindly to those they elected to lead them down this garden path.
Johnson is not Clark Kent
Brexit was always about fantasy. Now Boris Johnson, who admits to earning half a million pounds a year from his largely fictional “journalism”, has been elected to pursue the equal fantasy that if he gets the UK out of the EU the problems it has already caused will just go away and we can all forget about it.
Johnson wants to talk about other things and deal with other priorities. He is promising tax cuts and cash bonanzas all over the place, as if austerity has worked and the public finances are now in order. If he really has that kind of money, he should grovel on his knees before every food bank user, everyone who seen essential services taken away from them and everyone who will never have life prospects because the country won’t invest in anyone’s future any more. Only someone as immoral as Johnson could inflict such things on people throughout his parliamentary career when it wasn’t, apparently, necessary.
What Leavers were promised has already been shown to be unreal by what has happened since the referendum. The only answer Boris has to his country’s rapid descent into international embarrassment is to peddle the lie that finally leaving the EU will solve everything. He is no more interested in reality than he is in acknowledging how many children he has, filing correct tax returns or admitting the behaviour towards his girlfriends which is subject to legal non-disclosure agreements.
Boris may have a majority but he is incapable of using it to address his country’s problems due to the lies on which it was obtained. Giving him that majority will solve nothing – and least of all will it get Brexit done. His problems are only just beginning, and his only possible response will be to run away, as he did by demanding this election when he had to face the reality of obstinate parliamentarians representing the interests of their constituents.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.