Prime Minister Boris Johnson ran a Tory campaign that was a rebuke to his two Tory predecessors, David Cameron and Theresa May. He campaigned for getting Brexit finished and talked endlessly about his plans to invest and spend on the National Health Service, with none of the usual Tory promises to “reform” or “streamline” it. In other words, he was not going to be embarrassed about carrying on Brexit, as May had been. And he was going to reverse the policies of austerity that had existed after the financial crash under both the Cameron and May governments.
The result is a thumping majority of 78 seats for the Tories, who won seats deep in traditional Labour heartlands. This is a majority large enough to break the parliamentary deadlock into which the first Brexit deal had fallen. Even more crucially, it is large enough to allow Johnson to freely shape the next stage of Brexit negotiations — on the future trading relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Realignment and rejection
In this space, we predicted after the 2017 snap election that the tectonic plates of Brexit — the sentiments of Leave and Remain — would begin to grind underneath Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn could not find, in this election, a coherent position on Brexit. The resulting earthquake will end his leadership of the Labour Party. He has brought them to the lowest result since before World War II.
The election is a massive national repudiation of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. It was often said that Jeremy Corbyn was a “throwback” Labour leader, that he reminded people of the days before Tony Blair took the party in a less socialist and more Clintonite direction. Blair’s transformation of the Labour party in the 1990s was an ideological development that weakened the importance the party’s attachment to the working class. But the truth is that Corbyn’s ideological cohort in the 1980s had done the same, but in a different direction and to different ends.
His was the hard edge of the party that defined itself by its support for Third-Worldist socialist movements, and every challenge to the imperialism of the United Kingdom. He was no Clement Attlee or Harold Wilson. In the end, Corbyn appealed neither to the upwardly mobile metropole voters of the Blair coalition nor to the actual working class in northern England and in Scotland. In this election, the most decisive factor was that Labour finally lost the Labour vote to the Tories in England, and to the Scottish Nationalists in Scotland.
Under Corbyn’s watch, Labour became a party in which anti-Semitism started to have free rein. At first this seemed simply baffling. Surely, in a party committed to diversity, anti-Semitism would be an easily fixable programming error. But the problem has only persisted and grew under Corbyn’s leadership. Former London mayor and Corbynite Ken Livingstone seemed to blame the “Jewish vote” for Corbyn’s defeat last night, despite the fact that Jews are less than 1 percent of the population of the United Kingdom.
Johnson ran on a message of finally delivering on the result of the largest democratic mandate in British history: the 2016 vote to leave the European Union. He made this the center of his campaign and won a commanding majority.
Still, those on the center-left and progressive sides view this election as a reversal for democracy itself.
Not feeling massively bullish about the future of liberal democracy tonight.
— Edward Luce (@EdwardGLuce) December 12, 2019
The UK really throws a wrench in the view that multiparty democracy fixes everything, or even very much.
Whatever winds are buffeting Western democracies, they're more than powerful enough to overwhelm differences in electoral systems.
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) December 12, 2019
It is no such thing. Brexit is the most significant event for Western democracy since the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of the great dangers in Europe and increasingly in America is the emergence of a political class that acts as a nomenklatura, that is motivated by its teleological belief in a fixed course for History itself. Brexit was a repudiation of this class and its version of History.
Until this election, elite Remainers were pioneering a playbook for subverting even such a stunning referendum result as Brexit. The playbook included hysterical and false accusations that the result was rigged by a hostile foreign power. (Russia, naturally.) It included simple fraud and misrepresentation. Tory and Labour candidates who preferred Remain simply lied about their commitment to implementing the result in their manifestos in 2017. When Labour did surprisingly well on a manifesto that promised to deliver Brexit that year, the media reinterpreted it as a rebuke to Brexit.
The playbook included the usurpation of democratic institutions by judicial ones. In recent months the United Kingdom’s supreme court discovered powers to revise the royal prerogative and parliamentary procedure when it was acting on behalf of Remain. And of course, this class sought to deploy the tried and true methods of the European Union, which simply forces nations to hold referendum again until the pre-determined, pro-European result is given. This is over and done. The clock of History is well and truly smashed now. The political classes of the West are on notice: They can no longer govern against the consent of democratic peoples forever.
Odds and ends
There are some odd winners and losers out of this process. Jo Swinson, the leader of the Remain-committed Liberal Democrats, lost in her own constituency. She was a beloved figure for Lib Dems, a party that should have been able to capitalize more on the turmoil of Labour and on the defection of Remainers from the Tory party.
In Scotland, Tory gains from 2017 were reversed in a basic landslide for the Scottish Nationalist Party. Is this a harbinger of a breakup of the Union? Maybe not. The reality of Brexit makes a secession of Scotland more difficult in fact. All the questions and agonies of the Irish border debates in Brexit would play out on a much larger scale if Scotland sought to leave the customs and currency territory of the United Kingdom for that of the European Union. Brexit makes Scottish independence more uncertain and more costly.
In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist party lost the constituency of Belfast North to Sinn Fein. This is a shocking turnover of a seat unionists had held since the days of Edward Carson. But it was not a great night for Sinn Fein either, which saw the strengthening of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour parties. Overall, Sinn Fein and the DUP — the extremes who had moved to the center of Northern Irish politics — were rebuked for their inability to make the institutions of Northern Ireland work.
The election is oddly good news for Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach of Ireland. Varadkar bet his premiership on the Irish backstop and avoiding a hard border in Ireland. In negotiations with Johnson, he won serious concessions while making one or two small ones of his own. This last bit was dangerous given the feeling in Ireland that Brexiteers were weakening at every turn. Why concede anything to that bumbling lot? By getting a good-enough deal with Johnson ahead of a thumping Brexiteer victory, Varadkar and the Irish government timed their strategy perfectly. However, this strategy may ironically work against Varadkar, as it will allow the return of normal domestic politics in Ireland. He will surely face an election soon.
The election is good for conservative nationalist reformers everywhere in the West. Certain trends have dominated Western politics since the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s and early 2000s this included the dominance of center-left parties who tacked to the center and away from socialism on economic issues. Now we see a photo negative of the trend. Johnson’s ability to firmly detach Labour voters from the Labour party is another indication that center-right parties are ascendant when they reject the cultural extremism of the left, but abandon the politics of austerity and aspirations for a laissez-faire economy.