British politics are seeming eerily familiar these days: Just as in 2017, the Tories, looking at favorable polls that show them crushing Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, have called for a snap election in order to give their new PM a mandate to complete an orderly Brexit. Just as in 2017, the Tories have begun projecting that they’ll win a majority of 40, 60, or maybe even more. Just as in 2017, the electorate very clearly wants to get Brexit done, and that desire is very clearly a driving force behind the Tories’ standing in the polls.
And just as in 2017, the campaign has begun with the Tories immediately changing the subject from Brexit.
Boris Johnson opened the campaign with an op-ed comparing Corbyn to Josef Stalin in a big banner headline in the Daily Telegraph. Then, as in 2017, came an unforced error that made the Tories look “out of touch.” In 2017, it was the May government’s proposal that those who needed in-home nursing care toward the end of life would see their estates sold to the government after death, and their families’ inheritances reduced to nothing more than £100,000 — the so-called dementia tax. This time, it seems, dementia struck Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Bertie Wooster character who became Leader of the House of Commons in July. In a Monday radio interview on the subject of the awful 2017 Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people, Rees-Mogg seemed to suggest that he and his host would have had the “common sense” to ignore the fatal instruction from the fire brigades to stay in the burning building, which may have cost over 50 Britons their lives.
Now, as in 2017, such a misstep can’t help, but it might not prove a death knell for the Conservatives. The whole Tory theory of the snap election is that the party must begin winning seats in constituencies that traditionally go to Labour but are pro-Brexit. By withdrawing the whip from members who opposed his Brexit plans, Johnson shifted the party in a more populist direction in anticipation of such a strategy. Tories will argue that if voters don’t give them a majority, a Corbyn-led coalition government of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and Scottish nationalists will inflict on the country more Brexit negotiations, another referendum on membership in the EU, and another Scottish independence referendum. It’s a good argument — Britons clearly dread the effects on their society and politics that these conflicts continue to have. But it’s also funny when you think about it: The Tories are arguing that the alternative to voting for them in 2019 is a replay of what Tory governments brought the country from 2014–2019.
The United Kingdom and the United States have both experienced a political realignment recently seen in many of the big western democracies: A party that was once heavily identified with organized labor and the working classes — Labour in the U.K., the Democrats in the U.S. — began in the 1990s to drift toward the rich, educated, urban elite. In response, some number of the party’s cultural and social conservatives have drifted slowly to the right.
Republicans in the U.S. have found it relatively easy to absorb disaffected Democratic exiles and reshape their party as something more populist than it is traditionally thought to be. Tories in the U.K. have had a harder time shaking off their reputation as the party of the establishment. For one thing, Labour is now led by an unreconstructed socialist who resisted the party’s Blairite turn to the center in the 1990s. For another, the Tory party is still dominated by people who went to the top schools and joined the top clubs.
This could yet prove a huge problem in the upcoming campaign, not least because the Labourite “Leave” districts that Johnson needs to begin winning to take a majority are precisely those that have traditionally had the most intense and tribal hatred of the Tories, whom they saw as active class enemies. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, like his UKIP before, polls well in all of them, and its presence means that there’s a clear “anti-EU” alternative to the Tories’ toffs and top boys.
It’s difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, but if Tories want to win new districts, they have to break out of old habits of thinking. Calling Jeremy Corbyn a socialist over and over in 2017 seemed to help Corbyn more than hurt him. Instead of making the same mistake now, Johnson should go after Corbyn as a waffler on Brexit and an ineffective leader who indulges the many anti-Semites in his party. Johnson has tried to emphasize that he leads a different Tory party, one that is reversing the policies of austerity his predecessors felt necessary during the downturn. He needs to go further. Brexit has radically transformed the politics of the United Kingdom. The Tories must show that it’s transformed them, too.