Boris Johnson’s Victory and the Political Realignment Shaking Western Democracies

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a statement at Downing Street after winning the general election in London, England, December 13, 2019. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
Johnson’s electoral triumph proved that politicians who refuse to reckon with the desires of the voters will be crushed even by those who pretend to do so.

Six months ago, the British Conservative party was planning its own funeral; Nigel Farage had embarked on a sold-out tour of its strongholds, helping to cut its vote share to 8.8 percent in the European Parliament elections. Today, the Tories look to be in the prime of their youth. Boris Johnson has taken them to their fourth straight general-election win, the first time in British history that a governing party has increased its share of the vote in four consecutive elections. They now have a mandate for five years of majority government — and, judging by Johnson’s recent pronouncements, he thinks that they’ll have at least five more after that.

A great deal of thought has already been dedicated to figuring out just how the Tories did it. The consensus is that a fusion of Brexit fatigue, Jeremy Corbyn’s ineptitude, and Johnson’s pagan pizzazz won the day. But the forces underlying these contingencies have implications for politics worldwide. They point to a political realignment that could dominate western democracies for years to come.

The 2016 Brexit vote revealed that a large portion of the British population was unrepresented in Westminster party politics, and its aftermath exposed the fact that a large number of politicians would stop at nothing to keep that group unrepresented. To be sure, these MPs would not have put it in such words — they thought that attempting to stop Brexit for three years was acting in their constituents’ best interests. But constituents express their beliefs at the ballot box, and most of them simply did not think that their representatives knew what was best better than they did.

There is plenty to criticize about Johnson and the government that he will now lead, but the same accusation cannot be leveled against them. Johnson ducks scrutiny, avoids substance, and can often seem entirely devoid of empathy. His campaign consisted of the three words “Get Brexit Done,” spun around like a broken play toy. But these words had more power than Labour’s message of social justice, just as the Brexit slogan “Take Back Control” held more sway than the countless predictions that Brexit would bring about economic doom in the run up to the referendum. Both phrases were fashioned by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s infamous chief adviser, and their success point to a very simple fact: Voters believe in democracy, and they do not take nicely to politicians who don’t. No handout can compensate for the snobbery of those offering it, because voters disdain moral superiority more than they appreciate moral purity.

The roots of this tension go back decades, as successive British governments implemented EU treaties and constitutional reforms without democratic assent. In 1992, when the European Economic Community turned into the European Union, John Major’s government refused to offer the public a referendum on the issue. And in 1997, under Tony Blair, monetary policy was placed in the hands of the Bank of England. The same Blair government pushed for executive asymmetrical devolution in Scotland and Wales, without considering its extreme constitutional implications for England’s representation in Westminster. Then came the 2007 EU Lisbon Treaty, a major change to the U.K.’s constitution that Prime Minister Gordon Brown decided he could ratify without asking for voters’ consent. This move effectively rendered any future promise on migration numbers a lie, because the United Kingdom’s borders were made subservient to Eurozone economics. Voters are not stupid: They realize that an open-borders policy raises problems for the welfare state. Ignoring this fact only made room for extremism when the Eurozone’s economy eventually fell into crisis in 2008.

These were the beginnings of a political realignment that has found its voice in liberal democracies across the continent and beyond — a realignment based on the divide between democratic politics and technocratic politics, in which liberals turn to the courts in order to entrench cultural values for which they cannot not secure democratic consent. The Blair years might have seen continuous government, but they also saw a significant drop in voter participation. Labour’s 2001 and 2005 electoral victories saw turnouts of 59.4 percent and 61.4 percent, respectively — some of the highest levels of voter apathy recorded since World War II. This was rule under the primacy of law and economics masked by the pretense of political consent and temporary economic stability.  Divides between the electorate and their representatives on questions of immigration, foreign policy, and national identity were buried under a centrist carpet.

Brexit brought the divide into the open, because it gave voters an opportunity to reject the new constitution of a United Kingdom that had been radically transformed since it joined the EU in 1973. An unprecedented number of people did exactly that, and it is no surprise that this vote then took on the political and cultural significance that it did. Politicians across the Commons agreed to let the voters decide, only to explain away the referendum’s result as an aberration of common sense. Such arrogance meant that Brexit became a symbol of the cultural divide between those who had political control and those whose wishes were considered problems to be solved.

Any politician unwilling to reckon with the scale of the referendum was destined to shrivel into electoral insignificance. Corbyn had no easy way out, because Labour was effectively three different constituencies mashed uncomfortably into one party: middle-class Remainer liberals, woke millennial students, and socially conservative workers. These groups hold irreconcilable views on Brexit and stand in different places along the democratic–technocratic divide. It is a split similarly represented by their Westminster MPs, albeit in distinctly different ratios.

When Corbyn tried to win over Brexit voters, he could not deny that he had allowed a majority of his MPs to prevent Brexit’s implementation. And when he tried to win over Remainers, he was forced to face the fact that he had never been a Remainer (not to mention the fact that his anti-Western brand of foreign policy is antithetical to many Remainers’ liberal internationalism). The only group that truly stuck by him were the students, and anyone who knows anything about democracy knows that students don’t win you elections.

It is easier for the Right to turn its back on austerity than it is for these fundamental issues to be reconciled on the left. David Cameron showed no interest in winning over the group of working class, culturally conservative, Eurosceptics alienated by Labour, but Johnson knew that convincing them to vote Tory was the key to electoral success. That simply meant doing everything in his power to distance himself from his party’s previous three governments on the economy and Brexit. He made a series of generous public-spending promises, even going so far as to question his own party’s entire record of austerity. And while Corbyn’s Labour floundered between Brexit policies, the prime minister kicked out the 21 rebel MPs who’d refused to keep open the possibility of leaving the EU without a deal.

It was a radical move, but also a deeply Conservative one. The Tories are the oldest political party in Europe and, by some accounts, the oldest in the world. They co-opt extreme movements, ameliorate them, and incorporate them into their fold; they spend years locked in rampant infighting, only to find a way to work together when election time comes around. This time, they used Brexit to tame a toxic brand of nativism. The two key players, Johnson and Michael Gove, stabbed each other in the back repeatedly before aiming their fire at Corbyn. (Gove twice ran against Johnson for the party’s leadership, but has played a major role in his government.) If the Conservative party really is in its youth, then its lifespan will be something to be behold. But it will not be a surprise that it has managed to adapt, because its adaptability is a mainstay of democratic history.

Adaptability can also be called opportunism, and both words apply to Johnson is in equal measure. He knew that assembling the entirety of the Leave coalition was a path to victory, because the Remain vote would be fractured between parties. He knew that Brexit had become a symbol of the divide between democratic politics and technocratic politics, and that party allegiances were being redefined by a set of politicians whose beliefs had long been at odds with their voters. Johnson’s tactics may well have been cynical, reckless, and divisive — proroguing Parliament is hardly a moderate response to political deadlock. But his claim to be on the side of the people was made convincing by the fact that he was the only potential prime minister promising not to turn his back on a democratic vote. Opportunists wear masks, and often say less than they know. But they aren’t naïve, and Johnson is no exception.

Hence, Johnson and Corbyn can be considered two different kinds of liar. Johnson is untrustworthy, careless, and unprincipled. His lies are half-truths, told with a grin that makes them appear more like chat-up lines. They make some people swoon and some people sick — but they also make almost everyone laugh. Corbyn’s lies do not make people laugh, because they give the impression of someone who is not ready to admit that he is lying. In this election, confronted with a parliamentary-party split on Brexit and an electorate that did not trust him on national security, Corbyn’s ultimate lie was to pretend that he could conduct his form of politics while staying honest. Asked about his position on Brexit, his party’s record of anti-Semitism, and his view on the Russian-poisoning scandal, Corbyn simply equivocated, and pivoted to talk about suffering children.

Nobody ever doubted that Corbyn cares for suffering children, of course. People doubt that he is capable of recognizing that holding political office requires more than caring. He is all passion and no realism, a man of conviction rather than responsibility. Politics is an art of power-plays that often involves difficult choices, not a competition of sincere passions and honest intentions. While Johnson lies for the sake of politics, Corbyn lies about politics, and voters know it. Johnson may be playing a game, aware that he needs power in order to leave behind a legacy. But democracy will always choose a bluffer over a hedger. While Johnson told a series of little lies, Corbyn told a big lie: He pretended that the electorate cared more about his priorities than its own.

Johnson now has five years to make this electoral shift permanent, to convince workers in the North who lent him their vote that they made a wise decision. This means focusing on the so-called “people’s priorities” — another campaign phrase directly lifted from the final line of one of Cummings’ blog posts. He must secure the trade deals necessary to offset Britain’s exit from the Eurozone, address regional inequality, get tough on crime, invest in the NHS, crack down on terrorism, and somehow do all of it without alienating wealthier voters in the Southeast.

It remains to be seen how long jail sentences for whistleblowers will be paired with a massive green-energy R&D budget, or whether control of borders is more important to voters than cutting the number of people crossing them (Johnson is adopting an Australian-style points system, but shows no signs of capping immigration). Brexit will have negative economic consequences, and the government will have to borrow its way through them. Its coalition is made up of groups that will shrink with time — older, whiter, and less qualified than tomorrow’s population.

But perhaps the greatest question mark is whether the Tories can hold the U.K. together along the way. Johnson’s victory was primarily an English victory. His Brexit deal effectively means that Northern Ireland will stay part of the single market, making the case for unification with Ireland proper more credible. Meanwhile, the Scottish National party’s dominance in Scotland puts the union under further threat from the North; SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has already demanded another independence referendum.

But ironically, a divided Britain is likely to hurt Labour more than the Conservatives. After it was wiped out in Scotland in 2015, Labour effectively lost any path to an electoral majority — and an independent Scotland would only cement its political impotence. Though many in the party are justified in considering how it can reclaim the working-class constituencies with which it fell out of touch, perhaps a better approach would be to double down on its success in big cities. Deserting its historic base and teaming up with the Liberal Democrats for the college-educated vote may help the party in the long term, but would also turn it into an entirely different organization (and could lead it to a similar fate as the French Socialists). The triumph of Conservative adaptability has often been aided by the failure of the Tories’ opponents to adapt, and the Tories’ current opponents have a difficult task ahead of them.

In 2015, Cameron was hailed as a magician for leading the Tories to a meager twelve-seat majority, and an era of coalitions and minority governments was expected to rule Britain for decades. In 2020, Johnson has a stronger mandate for reform than almost any other leader of a liberal-democratic country on Earth. The EU will have no choice but to negotiate with his team: Brussels faces enough problems of its own and will not want to be blamed for creating another. And if Johnson can temper threats to the union while Labour continues its infighting, he will be practically beyond parliamentary scrutiny.

None of this is to say that Johnson will have it easy. He will likely soon face the difficulties that such power brings: Party conflict, economic downturns, and geopolitical crises. But this election was a sign that politicians who have refused to reckon with the beliefs of their voters will be crushed even by those who have pretended to do so. In other countries, the catalyst for this realization may not be Brexit. Indeed, Brexit may have forced a conversation to take place in Britain that many liberal democracies cannot yet bring themselves to have.

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