During the last decade, Conservative governments have given the United Kingdom a strange basket of gifts. Austerity politics have hollowed out society and left half of children living in poverty in some areas of the country. The National Health Service has experienced some of its longest wait times for some types of healthcare visits despite targets to get people treated in a timely manner.
Brexit – a cause confected almost entirely within the collective psyche of the Tory party – has left British politics mudbound, Irish politics teetering on the edge of the most serious crisis since the Troubles of the 1970s and relations with our closest and most important trading partner, the EU, in the toilet.
Thursday night the British people went to the polls and confirmed that this was the party they wanted to rule from Westminster for the next five years. It is often said of politics that electorates get the governments they deserve. It is often said of romance that there is no accounting for taste. Why and how so many millions of citizens voted in favor of the status quo for a half-decade longer is something that is worth a little thought.
The simplest analysis comes down to three B-words. The first is Brexit. Despite official horror at the notion of a second Brexit referendum, the Conservative party very smartly ran the 2019 election campaign as though it were precisely that – only without a Remain campaign to challenge them. “Get Brexit Done” was a forceful, active mission statement, which contrasted with Labour’s pathetic, passive and vague “It’s time For Real Change” and spoke to deep public weariness with three years of (Conservative-led) failure to clear even the first hurdles of Brexit negotiations. (Like ‘Make America Great Again’, the slogan can also operate as a neat dog whistle for bigots, who make up a small but active part of every electorate and must, to that end, be catered for by any aspirant government.)
Of course, it is likely to prove no easier to “Get Brexit Done” than to “Make America Great Again,” for even with overwhelmingly favorable parliamentary numbers, the next government faces a near-impossible timetable for negotiating a permanent trading arrangement with the European Union by the end of January 2020; a no-deal Brexit is still highly possible. Be that as it may, the Conservatives were the only party who had a Brexit policy that could be explained in three words, and they were rewarded handsomely for it in Leave-voting Labour constituencies Thursday night.
The Tories also have the second B-word: Boris Johnson. Those who dislike the Prime Minister usually find it hard to grasp how someone so frivolous, absurd, dishonest and shallow could be taken seriously by so many voters. The point is that voters have priced in all those things and do not care. Johnson is amusing and he is recognizable. The year is 2019. Like Donald Trump, Johnson has an unmistakable diction and preposterous hair. Ordinary people know who he is – which counts for a lot. I have heard cabinet ministers in private describe Johnson as a “child emperor.” No matter: he is the Tories’ emperor, and with him, they blasted their opponents last night.
The third important B-word in Thursday’s election was beard. Specifically, the one worn by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn proved himself – not for the first time but thankfully, it seems, for the last – to be a dislikable, brittle and feeble political campaigner who is in the final analysis unelectable.
He has been an incompetent leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, who failed utterly to deal with a poisonous anti-Semitic strain within his party, while at the same time turning Labour away from its position as a modern, moderate movement that could reach out and attract centrist Tories – a position it took Tony Blair and Gordon Brown many painstaking years to achieve. It may never recover.
Corbyn will leave Labour as a fright-wig tribute to 1970s-era Militant tendency with the worst absurdities of 2010s-era campus identity politics grafted on. He is known in pubs where I drink as “that Marxist fella.” It is a cliché of British politics that you cannot win an election from the left. It is a cliché because it is true. Corbyn proved it several times during his disastrous tenure in charge of the party but instead of changing his ways pinned his hopes on just shouting “NHS” and hoping for the best.
Get our free weekly newsletter
There is no solace for Labour moderates in knowing that their internal process for selecting a new leader will probably produce someone even worse. It is just as well, perhaps, that the Tories have such a large parliamentary majority that for the next five years the Opposition will exist in name only. The people have spoken. This is what they want.