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The Mandate

December 20th, 2019

The Conservatives are triumphant. Labour have been smashed, the Lib Dems have actually regressed. The Tories may not have managed a landslide in the technical sense of getting a majority of 100, but they weren’t far away and their lead of 160 over the second-placed party is very handy indeed. They will be as dominant in Parliament as the Conservatives were in the 1987 Parliament or the Labour party was after the 2005 election.

The Conservatives will take this as a ringing endorsement of their leader and their policies. They will be unwise to do so. Ipsos-MORI predicted with great accuracy that the Conservatives would canter home. Their tracker recorded that Boris Johnson was thought of favourably by just 33% of the public (with net favourability of minus 14).  The government’s satisfaction ratings trail far behind even this mediocre level.

Nor is the public sold on Brexit. BMG Research found a 9% lead for the Conservatives in their final poll, marginally understating the Conservatives but getting the Labour vote share spot on. On the day of the general election, BMG Research found that in a rerun the public would vote 54:46 to Remain in the EU. The public may be resigned to getting Brexit done but on balance they still don’t think it’s a good idea. It’s an idea that’s very much still on probation.

Any explanation of the Conservatives’ election victory has to start with the awful mess that the Opposition is in. Jeremy Corbyn achieved record-breaking unpopularity. He was the Conservatives’ best recruiting sergeant.  

Jeremy Corbyn is not responsible for all of Labour’s problems: the 2015 election shows that medium and small towns were distrustful of even fairly vanilla social democracy. He has, however, made the problem substantially worse.Labour has now retreated to the metropolitan areas and the Welsh valleys. The greatest damage he may have inflicted on Labour, however, may have been to leave it lacking in both direction and in potential leaders after him.  

The Lib Dems were still, after the disaster of 2015 from which they have yet to recover, irrelevant in most of the country. With an unpopular, divided and uncompetitive opposition, the Conservatives needed only to stand upright to win. Where the opposition was more organised, in Scotland, the Conservatives’ unpopularity saw them regress. (As with the Conservatives in England and Wales, the SNP will probably incorrectly conclude that their victory was won by their own popularity.)

The field looks to have been cleared for the Conservatives to do pretty much as they please for the foreseeable future. The only potential check on the Conservative leadership is its own MP base. With Boris Johnson’s vindictiveness having cleared out many independent-minded MPs before the election and with 109 new MPs owing their election to Boris Johnson, this looks like an unlikely source of problems. We can expect Conservative MPs to offer ovine loyalty.

Enough contextualising. The Conservatives could only beat the opponents that were put up in front of them. They did this handsomely, a feat they notably failed to do in 2017. Boris Johnson can rightly bask in his success for now.

What can we expect from this Conservative government? Boris Johnson has reliably acted exclusively in what he perceives to be his own interests at every point in his career to date and there is no absolutely reason to expect that to change.

What does that mean in practice? Unshackled, we can expect to see Boris Johnson’s worst instincts come to the fore. He is already making threatening noises against the BBC for having been insufficiently subservient to the Conservatives during the election campaign. The government is looking to muzzle the judiciary and take charge of judicial appointments. His longstanding tendency to look after his friends has resulted in an immediate peerage for Zac Goldsmith.  

And it means that wherever possible Boris Johnson will stick to the little that he has announced. Precisely because the manifesto is so thin, it will be a touchstone for the government, a means of showing that the government has kept faith with its voters. Having promised to spend lavishly and not to tax more, the government will simply borrow a lot more. The idea of sound finances is very old hat.

There has been some surprise that the government is seeking to legislate for a hard deadline of the end of next year for concluding the Brexit negotiations.  That surprise is wholly unjustified. The government was elected as 2015 UKIP and it will govern as 2015 UKIP. Nigel Farage’s victory is complete.

The government will work backwards from the deadline that it has set itself for concluding Brexit and come up with a deal that is achievable in that timescale.  That will involve massive concessions to the EU and will be necessarily minimalist in scope, but the deadline will either be met or missed only by a little. Or there will be no deal.

To object that approach would be very damaging for the economy and the country’s prospects would be to miss the point. The economy is already flatlining. Despite the parlous state of the economy, it barely registered as a campaign theme.

The withdrawal agreement is going to place an additional drag on the economy for the indefinite future. If the final agreement makes matters worse, so what? Identity now trumps economics.  

For the same reason, expect immigration to be clamped down upon hard. The Prime Minister complained that EU citizens felt at home in Britain. He will be making sure that they don’t. So what if that is very damaging to the economy?  The Conservative coalition expects, and that collateral damage is to be accepted, even welcomed.

So for the next few years expect the country to continue to underperform, for the country to spend far beyond its means, for it to continue its path of isolation, for its civic structures to be undermined and for standards in public life to decline. Happy Christmas.

Alastair Meeks