Boris Johnson has won the most convincing mandate of any UK prime minister since Tony Blair in his prime, giving him the free hand he craved to deliver both Brexit and his version of “One Nation” Conservatism.
During the course of a dispiriting five-week election campaign, Mr Johnson gave little detail of how he intends to exercise his power. Now he has to turn “Get Brexit Done” from a slogan into a policy.
He will also have to explain how his “One Nation” vision can somehow hold together a new Tory coalition that includes voters in the stockbroker belt of Sevenoaks and working-class voters in the terraced streets of Stoke-on-Trent.
When the dust settles on a remarkable election night, Mr Johnson will not only command a party united on a manifesto commitment to deliver Brexit but also with a different face and a different set of priorities.
The election had always been a high-risk strategy. In October Mr Johnson secured MPs’ backing for his Brexit deal with a Commons majority — suggesting he might have been able to deliver his withdrawal deal in time for a January exit from the EU.
But Mr Johnson feared that Brexit would turn into a winter war of attrition at Westminster, with MPs repeatedly amending and defeating the government on the detail of the plan. The election was his way out.
The biggest uncertainty is how Mr Johnson will actually deliver Brexit, assuming that he can now pass his withdrawal agreement through parliament in time for a British departure on January 31.
For all his campaign bluster about “getting Brexit done” — suggesting it would be sorted before Christmas turkeys went into the oven — Mr Johnson now faces a highly problematic race to agree a new trade deal with the EU by the December 2020 deadline. Mr Johnson has ruled out requesting an extension.
Some have speculated he would use a large Commons majority to sideline the Brexit hardliners of the European Research Group, pushing for a trade deal that left the country closely aligned with EU rules and able to trade without excessive barriers.
But there was nothing in Mr Johnson’s campaign rhetoric to suggest he was about to tack to a more moderate Brexit, even if he will now face intense business lobbying to stay closely within the EU’s trading orbit.
While members of the ERG were banished from the airwaves during the election campaign — Tory strategists feared they would scare off moderate voters — they will still form a powerful bloc in the new parliament.
In 2017, as foreign secretary, Mr Johnson warned that Britain should “not bottle out of Brexit and end up in some dingy anteroom of the EU, pathetically waiting for the scraps but no longer in control of the menu”.
To say that Mr Johnson and senior Tory ministers have not confronted voters with the reality of a difficult EU trade negotiation would be an understatement.
Sajid Javid, chancellor, has even claimed that a high-level EU/UK political declaration on the principles underlying any trade deal were the same as the real thing. “We have agreed a fantastic new trade deal with the EU,” he told the BBC during the campaign.
Meanwhile Mr Johnson achieved a rare political feat in persuading voters that he offered a “change” in government — his party has been in power since 2010 — with a promise to lead a “One Nation Conservative administration”.
But there is significant uncertainty about how he would turn that moderate rhetoric into practice. In some respects parts of his agenda are clear: higher public spending, infrastructure investment and tax cuts for poorer voters.
Mr Johnson’s gamble of winning “red wall” seats in the North and the Midlands has paid off, with several constituencies that had never returned a Conservative MP flipping blue.
He has promised a Budget in February to flesh out his plan to “level up” the British economy, building up the potential and wealth of constituencies outside the London region upon which his election gains were based.
However Mr Johnson now represents working-class Northern and Midlands seats wooed with populist campaign themes that differed greatly from the liberal form of open Conservatism advocated by the likes of Ken Clarke and John Major.
Mr Johnson is promising more state intervention in failing industries, protectionist “buy British” procurement policies and a crackdown on low-skilled immigrants who “treat the UK basically as though it’s part of their own country”.
James Kanagasooriam, the data strategist who initially identified the red wall, said Mr Johnson had “smashed the red wall and rebuilt it brick by brick in deep blue”, adding that the personality of Mr Corbyn, combined with the wedge issue of Brexit, was responsible for routing Labour in its traditional heartlands.
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