This was an election as important and as divisive for the UK as Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979. Vast numbers of British people will never be reconciled to Boris Johnson as prime minister or to Brexit. In fact, a whole nation, Scotland, is already asking permission to leave.
My assumption, however, is that Johnson will go Red Tory rather than born-again-Thatcherite. Because he will want to capitalise on the disaffection from Labour of vast numbers of its traditional supporters in the Midlands and north of England.
So Labour will have its work cut out to look like a party of government any time soon, even if it finds a more unifying leader than Jeremy Corbyn. But there is too much to say about the consequences of what has happened. So, for now, I want to say a bit more about the ‘why’ rather than the ‘where next’.
There are three things that stand out for me about the earthquake – and they all begin with ‘C’.
The first is ‘C’ for ‘coalition’. The Conservative party became the coalition of Brexit supporters, with Nigel Farage in a perverse way helping Johnson by increasing the salience of ‘getting Brexit done’ (in that slightly dishonest phrase) every time Farage opened his mouth, but not really providing an alternative version of Brexit that many people understood or wanted to back with their votes.
By contrast, it is jaw-dropping how utterly useless those who oppose Brexit were in putting to one side their tribal loyalties and voting tactically to prevent Johnson winning.
The passionate opposition to Johnson’s Brexit of Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and Plaid Cymru was completely overshadowed by their visceral instincts to crush each other in our first-past-the-post electoral system.
What we witnessed yesterday was collective irrationality by the parties of the centre and left on a breathtaking scale.
Which brings me to the second ‘C’, for ‘Cummings’ – as in ‘Dominic Cummings’, Johnson’s chief aide. From the moment Boris Johnson appointed him as consiglieri in July, his first and most significant appointment as PM, Cummings knew he could ‘get Brexit done’ (that cursed phrase again) by unifying the Tory party (of which he was not a member) to deliver Brexit while capitalising on the disunity of the Remainers.
The purging of Remainer Tory MPs and ministers was not accidental but ruthlessly calculated. But what matters more about Cummings is the way that he changed the government from – well – a government into a campaigning machine.
Everything that he and Johnson have done since July was explicitly about creating a narrative – perhaps a powerful myth – that MPs and judges and other members of a London-based establishment were frustrating the revealed ‘will of the people’ to leave the EU.
Everything became Trumpian slogans: ‘the Surrender Act’ and the ghastly ‘get Brexit done’ being the two most important. Politics has been simplified and – some would say – coarsened. There was no space for nuanced debate. This matters and will have consequences.
Finally, there is ‘C’ for ‘Corbyn’. Of course, he is right that much of the media, especially the press, were unfair to him. But they were even more vicious about him in 2017 when he led the greatest surge in Labour’s share of the vote since 1945.
The point is that back in 2017 his then opponent, Theresa May, turned out to be emotionally and psychologically incapable of doing the national campaigning thing. This time he faced a much more accomplished opponent in Johnson. And many of Labour’s traditional supporters, especially in the old mining areas, could not suppress their fears that he did not believe in them or in Britain.
These are not my words and views, but those of countless numbers of his parliamentary candidates, some of whom are today ex-MPs. Traditional white Labour voters in the old industrial heartlands rejected Corbyn in the way that traditional white Democrat supporters rejected Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Labour won’t begin any kind of effective fight back unless it finds a leader those estranged supporters can trust. Or, to put it another way, Brexit merely exposed the gap between Corbyn’s Labour and too many British people. Brexit was the symptom of Labour’s malaise, not the underlying cause.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV News blog
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