The U.K. Elections Were the Real Second Referendum

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he delivers a statement at Downing Street after winning the general election, in London, England, December 13, 2019. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

In the end, it wasn’t close at all. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party met a fate to which it has been accustomed for most of the last half-century. Once again, the British roundly rejected socialism. Boris Johnson and his conservatives will form the next British government.

This was no slight rejection. Labour lost 59 seats, putting the party in its worst position since 1935. The Tories won a majority of 78, making this their biggest victory since 1987. Every seat that the Conservatives contested swung towards them. Labour was abandoned by its traditional voting base.

There are a host of reasons that the election turned out this way. For many, last night represented a second referendum on Brexit — a chance to say, “we really meant it the first time.” For others, many of whom were not enthusiastic about Brexit in 2016, last night represented a chance to move on. One does not have to have been an ardent Leaver to have been appalled at the way in which the will of the people has been thwarted. Boris Johnson’s promise to ”get Brexit done” resonated.

Then there was Corbyn himself. It should have come as no surprise that Corbyn was most unpopular with Britons who remember the dark days of the 1970s. Britain has tried Corbyn’s ideas before, and they resulted in disastrous inflation, economic stagnation, high unemployment, routine power-cuts, industrial strife, a reduction in national prestige, and a penchant for nationalization that led to scarcity, abysmal customer service, and a virtual end to innovation. In his resignation speech, Jeremy Corbyn insisted that his policies had been popular. If they were, the British have a funny way of showing it.

Corbyn himself did not help matters. For all of his ideological lunacy, Michael Foot was an intelligent and thoughtful man with an admirable record of standing up to fascism. Jeremy Corbyn, by contrast, reminded voters of George Orwell’s sandal-and-pistachio-colored-shirt wearers, carrying with him “the smell of crankishness.” Notably, Corbyn failed to deal with the kooks, bigots, and anti-Semites that had flooded into his party, and he failed to apologize for his abdication. He equivocated on terrorism, had a history of sympathizing with dictators, and never met a radical he disliked. Put simply, he was not a man that a majority of the British people could imagine making their first minister. Boris Johnson, for all his flaws, was.

We must not overstate the appeal of Boris Johnson’s Conservative party, for Margaret Thatcher he is not. As he was obliged to do, Boris struck an ingenious bargain with the electorate: Trust me to deliver Brexit, and I will act as a centrist elsewhere. It is this bargain that explains how the Conservatives won over so many voters who, in any other circumstance, would never dream of voting Conservative. It is this bargain that explains why it was so difficult for Labour to convince its rank-and-file to stay loyal.

Once Brexit is done and dusted, the Tories will face a challenge: How to govern a country more generally in the name of an electorate that sent them there to achieve Brexit. How they answer that question will define British politics for a generation — maybe more. For now, however, the party should bask in its victory. Brexit is saved. Corbyn is gone. The Tories have a large majority for at least the next five years.


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