Do you want the good news or the bad news? The good news is that three years of political paralysis is over. The Brexit path is, for good or ill, at last clear; the UK has turned its back on hardline socialism and the country will at last have a stable government with a working majority. The result is an immense personal triumph for Boris Johnson.
The not so good news is that the country is about to discover that it takes more than a vote at an election to “get Brexit done”; that Boris Johnson is going to be unfettered in the next stage of the EU negotiations; and that a huge nationalist surge in Scotland almost certainly heralds another independence referendum. Even in the midst of their jubilation, the Conservatives may fear that, while they secured Brexit, they may lose the UK.
Brexit is now a reality. There will be no second referendum. Mr Johnson’s “get Brexit done” slogan may have been misleading in its implication that the hard part was over, but the result does end debate over whether it will happen.
Nonetheless, for all the hope in Tory circles that securing Brexit allows politics to return to normality, the next few years will be dominated by the next stage of the UK’s departure and the fight to keep Scotland in the Union.
But, for today, Mr Johnson can bask in the glow of a bold gamble that paid off. His strategy has been utterly vindicated and, assuming the exit poll is not shockingly wrong, he will return to Downing Street as master of the political landscape, the first Tory to win a large Commons majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987. The Vote Leave team that reassembled under him has again run a disciplined and brutally effective campaign. His strategy of pushing hard into former Labour strongholds in northern and Midlands Leave seats worked so well that he won constituencies that Labour has held since the 1930s. But the price was paid in liberal Remain heartlands, most notably London and in Scotland.
His enemies have been shattered. Against a weak, divided and incompetent government, Jeremy Corbyn has led Labour to its worst result since the 1930s. It is a damning indictment of his leadership.
Labour was dashed on two rocks. One was its attempt to face both ways on Brexit. The second was the character of its leader and his hard-left project. Mr Corbyn’s fears that allying with the Remain cause would cost him Leave-supporting constituencies have been borne out. But at least as important was that many traditional Labour voters did not believe in him as prime minister. It is a shameful betrayal of all those who needed a Labour government but were abandoned by ideologues who put their own political purity above the ordinary voters who needed them to be electable. By rights, the Corbynites should be driven from control but they will not lightly give up their grip on the party, blaming defeat on Brexit, Blairites and the media.
The Liberal Democrats’ hope of riding a Remain wave was wrecked by a poor campaign and a traditional squeeze. Only in Scotland have Remainers carried the day and that victory will fuel a looming independence threat and demands.
On Brexit, Mr Johnson will drive through the withdrawal bill to meet his January 31 deadline. He may be less beholden to any faction in his party but there is no reason to expect any softening of his stance or retreat from his insistence that he will not extend the deadline for securing a trade deal.
Yet he knows he faces a gruelling year trying to negotiate the UK’s future trade status. Markets are welcoming the political certainty and the avoidance of a Corbyn government but the economy will still be buffeted by Brexit.
The Conservatives’ majority in the House of Commons will give Mr Johnson breathing space on domestic policy. It will also lead to a significant increase in infrastructure spending. He has consistently said he will govern as a “one-nation” Tory, but this does not mean metropolitan social liberalism. The Tories have assembled a new electorate and many of their gains are poorer seats, more reliant on public services and more socially conservative. Brexit has allowed the Tories to reconnect with lower middle-class and blue-collar workers and its policy will reflect that shift. Mr Johnson is going to have to live up to his promise to end austerity. Those Tories who want low tax and low public spending are going to need to adapt to their new political base.
And yet, for all his success, Mr Johnson must know his government will be defined by forces beyond his control, the EU trade negotiations and the campaign for Scottish independence. That fight is not a foregone conclusion but Mr Johnson will need a serious strategy for heading it off.
This truly has been a defining election for the UK. It marks the end of the country as an EU nation; the challenge facing the Tories is to stop it also marking the end of the country.
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