The Conservative government triumphed for the fourth time in a row in December’s general election, winning 66 more seats to secure 365 in all. By rallying all those who voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum to the Tory banner with the simplistic but effective slogan ‘Get Brexit done’ and with the ‘remainers’ divided, the overwhelming victory leaves the prime minister, Boris Johnson, free to push through Britain’s departure from the EU. The Tory majority of 80 was the party’s biggest margin since 1987. Its 44% vote-share was its largest since Margaret Thatcher’s first win in 1979, though the 4.6% swing was less than hers then (5.2%) and far below Tony Blair’s 10% in 1997.
The opposition Labour Party suffered its worst result since 1935, losing constituencies it had held for generations in former strongholds in northern England for a final tally of 203, down 42. A combination of Labour’s equivocal stance on Brexit, plus the unpopularity of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, destroyed its ‘red wall’ of formerly safe seats. Many of those constituencies had never voted in a Tory MP before – bastions of the Labour heartland such as Workington, Darlington, Rother Valley and Blair’s old seat of Sedgefield.
It was a devastating blow to the party. Labour proved to be completely divided, with apparently little common ground between its traditional small-town base – more often than not working-class, northern, older and less educated voters – and its largely urban supporters, who were more likely to be middle-class, southern, younger, graduates and from an ethnic minority. Brexit was a decisive factor in Wales and northern England: Prof Robert Ford noted that the higher the leave vote, the greater the Tory gain – an eight-point swing in seats where 60% or more voted leave in 2016.’
The Liberal Democrats had hoped to play kingmaker in a hung parliament but won just 10 seats despite their vote rising by 4.1 percentage points. The one seat they lost was that of their leader, Jo Swinson, who had begun the campaign asserting that she would be the next prime minister. She lost to the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose dominance in Scotland has become almost complete – it gained 13 to control 48 of the country’s 59 seats. Its commitment to a second referendum on Scottish independence and its political dominance north of the border has set the SNP on a collision course with Johnson, who ruled out another vote.
There was also a seismic shift in Northern Ireland, where the Democratic Unionist Party’s leader in Westminster, Nigel Dodds, lost his seat to the Irish republicans of Sinn Féin. It was a humiliating defeat for the DUP, which had wielded real power before the election by giving the Tories a working majority in the House of Commons. For the first time, Irish nationalists overwhelmed unionists and now hold a majority in the six counties in the north of Ireland.
The 273 candidates of the Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, failed to win any seats and collected barely 2% of the vote. Despite Farage’s appeal for an alliance being rebuffed by the Tories (who used the slogan ‘Vote Brexit Party, get Corbyn’), the Brexit Party helped Johnson enormously by stepping aside in the 317 constituencies the government had won in 2017. Boasting that his party ‘killed the Liberal Democrats and hurt Labour’, Farage indicated he would now go to the US to help Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.
The vagaries of the British first-past-the-post system were very apparent: the Tories won 56.2% of seats on 43.6% of the vote, while the SNP won 3.9% of the vote but 7.4% of the seats (81% of Scottish seats for 45% of the vote). Labour won a proportional share of seats for its 32.1% vote but the Lib Dems got just 1.7% of seats for 11.5% of the vote, and the Greens had 0.2% on 2.7% of the votes. The Greens had 866,435 votes but one MP; it took just 25,883 SNP votes for each of its MPs.
The election was a huge vindication for Johnson’s gamble to stake everything on the nebulous pledge to ‘Get Brexit done’ (even though the UK will have left the EU by 31 January, there might be years of negotiation before new UK trade agreements are in place). While the Tories kept their manifesto pledges to a minimum, Labour had lots on offer with eye-catching new policy ideas being dropped into the debate as the campaign was underway. According to the Tory strategy led by Johnson’s chief of staff, Dominic Cummings (the man credited with winning the EU referendum for the leave campaign), the gaffe-prone prime minister, who had low personal ratings and a history of racist comments, was kept hidden away. He was the only party leader to refuse an interview with the BBC’s fearsome inquisitor Andrew Neil. Corbyn, by contrast, made himself available but couldn’t get past his deeply negative personal rating among voters (an astonishing -40) and was routinely cited as a major reason why traditional Labour voters were switching allegiance.
There were recriminations among opposition parties that they had acceded to Johnson’s calls for an early election. The former Lib Dem party chief, Nick Harvey, said going to the polls had been ‘a catastrophic mistake, gift-wrapping everything [Johnson] wanted and handing it to him for Christmas… majority government, Brexit, and given the state of the Labour Party, potentially 10 years in office.’ Private Eye said Corbyn and Swinson had both seen detailed polling by the anti-Brexit campaign group Best for Britain that predicted Labour and the Lib Dems would be heavily defeated if they allowed the government to overturn the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and bring forward the election. ‘The Labour and Lib Dem leaders ignored it and the inevitable disaster followed,’ it said.
As Britain leaves the EU for an uncertain future – unleashing its global potential or consigning itself to powerlessness and irrelevance, depending on one’s attitude to Brexit – the United Kingdom looks likely to break up. It is an irony that it is the Conservatives, rather than the supposedly radical Labour, who will defy their name to preside over the most extreme re-ordering of Britain in generations. Prof Timothy Garton-Ash noted: ‘Brexit, which has been fuelled at the top by English post-imperial grandeur, is the very thing that will probably end up demolishing even the original, smallest English empire, the one embracing these islands.’
The country will be polarised for years – a French minister compared Brexit to the Dreyfus affair in its ability to split the population for decades. The Tories may also find that those diehard Labour supporters who switched their allegiance might regret voting for Johnson if nothing much changes in their neglected constituencies.
Round Table special edition on Brexit and the Commonwealth – New introduction and ‘From our archives’ selections