During the 2019 election, in a country polarised by the Brexit debate with a parliament unable to resolve the issue, the Conservative party skilfully took advantage of public weariness. Boris Johnson’s simple message, ‘Get Brexit Done’, came to encapsulate the election itself, finally breaking the war of attrition that had existed between the government and opposition parties since 2017.
Johnson lost seven per cent of 2017 Conservative voters to the Liberal Democrats and four per cent to Labour. But he made up for this by gaining 11 per cent of 2017 Labour voters, concentrated in leave-voting seats previously held by Labour. The new electoral coalition that the Conservatives built is impossible to disaggregate from the Brexit vote and the socioeconomic, geographical and cultural factors underlying it.
Small groups of potential swing voters play a fundamental role in the first past the post electoral system. Importantly, the Conservative campaign message was tailored towards winning the support of a relatively small number of Labour voters prepared to switch.
The death of ‘no deal’
Johnson took over the Conservative party following the failure of Theresa May to pass her Brexit deal through parliament and in the context of a surge in support for the Brexit party. Support for a no-deal exit from the EU was remarkably high amongst Conservative voters.
To the surprise of many, Johnson carried through on his threat to prorogue parliament to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. This highly performative gesture shored up Johnson’s support amongst Brexit hardliners without ever taking the country close to an actual no-deal exit. His core calculation – that he had sufficient standing amongst Brexit supporters to popularise his deal – proved correct. The theme of the subsequent election changed from ‘no deal’ to ‘deliver the deal’.
Comparing Johnson 2019 to May 2017
May’s campaign for the 2017 election was conventional, focusing on stability, strength and control of immigration. Johnson’s repertoire of messages was more populist, and his campaign made a series of appeals to traditionally Labour-voting ‘Leave’ areas. On the one hand, a tidal wave of investment would be unleashed once Brexit was out of the way. On the other, the government would take proactive action to level up the UK with an ‘infrastructure revolution’ and more investment in education and the NHS.
May and her team consciously used the adage that there was ‘no magic money tree’ to criticise Jeremy Corbyn’s rejection of austerity. Conversely, Johnson claimed in oneinterview to have argued ‘with colleagues in the government’ that ‘austerity was just not the right way forward’, and even made a link between the EU and increased levels of regional inequality across the UK.
In addition to his superior messaging, Johnson also faced a public exhausted with the occupation of the news agenda by Brexit. This allowed him to present his promise to protect the NHS and control the cost of living as an outcome of delivering his deal, at which point politics could return to ‘normal’. He identified the need to adjust Conservative messaging on the traditional left/right scale to maximise his switchers from Labour in an unconventional, ‘leftist’ Tory campaign strategy.
The fractured politics of England and Wales
A number of studies have linked adverse local socioeconomic circumstances to a rise in support for the socially conservative cultural values – associated with a rise in anti-immigrant feeling, and nativist political sentiment and identity – that correlate closely with support for Brexit. Towns and small cities, particularly in post-industrial settings, have struggled to carve out a position for themselves in an economic model which favours large urban areas.
The average GDP per capita in ‘Conservative gain’ seats was £23,055 in 2018—nearly a third lower than the £32,090 found in consistently held Conservative seats. The strikingly low wages available in these former Labour seats implies the over-representation of a group of voters which has long been of interest to the major parties – from Ed Miliband’s ‘the squeezed middle’, to George Osborne’s ‘hard working families’ and Theresa May’s ‘just about managing’.
Place over person
Boris Johnson’s arguments in the general election departed from these labels, however, through its embrace of place over person, directly addressing the real economic need to ‘level up’ these discontented economic geographies.
He now faces a challenge of keeping together an electoral coalition comprised of voters who have potentially divergent economic interests: a traditional Conservative vote concerned with lower taxes and maintaining existing pockets of economic affluence, and a ‘new’ layer of communities demanding that the Johnson government fulfil its electoral promises.
Looking forward, the Conservative vote is potentially fragile. The ‘median voter’ has attitudinal views well to the left of traditional Conservative politics. Delivering Brexit will not have the same partisan appeal at the next general election.
In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the Conservatives will struggle to deliver the promise of ‘levelling up’ they made to the voters of the red wall. A future Labour campaign confronting these likely failures could do worse than learn from the clarity of messaging and argumentation that Johnson achieved in 2019.
A longer version of this piece appears in the Political Quarterly journal.