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The danger ahead for Boris Johnson Behind the Tory victory stands a mass of voices that have long been excluded from politics. Can the PM please them all?

Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

December 13, 2019   5 mins

Why did the Tories bother with a manifesto? The real electioneering was over before the election was even called — in the Parliamentary psychodrama leading up to Britain’s failure to leave the EU on 31 October.

Johnson’s opponents were handily played. They failed to grasp that the most salient issue for ordinary British voters today is not any one specific policy, but the simple question of whether voting ever changes anything. In the unedifying spectacle of their efforts to block Brexit, culminating in the Benn Act, Parliament’s Remain Alliance set about demonstrating to an appalled public that if it were left to them? No: voting would change nothing, ever.

This election was at root about a technocratic style of politics which has been the status quo for decades: an ever-growing range of issues is ring-fenced through mechanisms not easily subject to change via the democratic process. The worldview it enshrines can be summarised as ‘double liberalism’.

If Thatcher drove a greater degree of ‘openness’ in the economy, liberalising the financial sector and privatising monopoly utilities, Blair drove something equivalent in society. The new ‘openness’, first of the economy and then of society was entrenched via unaccountable quangos and EU treaties against which, in the words of Jean-Claude Juncker, “There can be no democratic choice”. The electoral fightback against this is the long narrative arc of Boris Johnson’s path to victory.

When, in 2015, David Cameron scored a surprise majority, his government concluded that this represented a mandate for double-liberal policies. He believed it possible to drive ‘openness’ on both social and economic fronts, and that rising freedom and prosperity would somehow magic away any costs and externalities.

He was wrong. In fact it was Cameron’s offer of an in/out referendum on the EU that handed him a majority. What the electorate wanted, more than austerity or gay marriage, was a chance to vote democratically on Britain’s continued participation in the central elite mechanism for avoiding confrontations with democracy. His majority was not a victory for double liberalism but the first move in an electoral rebellion against it.

The ugly story of elite resistance to the Leave vote after the 2016 referendum has done nothing to reassure electorates that the status quo Cameron so quintessentially represented might be salvageable. Voters have been treated to salvo after salvo from well-funded, well-connected insiders hell-bent on retaining their prime means of evading democratic accountability on favoured policies.

This culminated in Boris’ unofficial election campaign. Over September and October this year, the nail-biting finale to season 3 (?) of the Brexit drama saw Boris’ team baiting Parliamentary Remainers into deploying every means at their disposal to ring-fence outside politics the very issue of pre-political ringfencing. That is, they tried to use the judicial system as well as every constitutional trick in the book to stop the EU referendum result being implemented. The brazenness of this effort cut through even to that majority of the electorate which is largely apolitical. It has, rightly, triggered outrage.

Most people in the UK have no avenues for political influence other than their vote. No seats on quangos, no friends in think tanks, no contacts in the media or in lobbying firms or Parliament. Is it any wonder ordinary voters, even in such obdurately Labour constituencies as Leigh and Bolsover, have handed a thumping majority to the only party that appears willing to do as voters ask?

Demonstrating the Tories’ apparently unique willingness to obey the electorate was Boris’ real pitch for election. His victory was in the bag before his opponents even realised he was campaigning.

Tom Chivers was spot on when he wrote that he expected the party manifestos to have zero impact. The Tory manifesto was thin, he said. Indeed. The real Tory manifesto was Johnson’s resistance to the Benn Act. The official manifesto document was mostly an exercise in trying not to distract from his martyrdom on 31 October, plus the use of ‘Get Brexit Done’ to hammer home Boris’ willingness to have another go, if elected, at obeying the electorate.

This tactic has seen Johnson smash through Labour’s ‘Red Wall’. Aided by Corbyn’s unappetising combination of elite wokeness and hard-left anti-Semitism, the Conservatives have taken working-class constituencies some of which have been Labour for decades. Many of these felt abandoned by a Labour Party that considers their small-c social conservative outlook retrograde and their votes as a given. These communities wanted their voice back, and were horrified by the prospect of an ostensibly left-wing alliance working in plain sight in Parliament to deny them this.

What form, then, will Boris’ policy platform take as he seeks to incorporate that voice in a new Conservative regime? Johnson himself strikes me as a largely unprincipled but astute political actor, who will do his best to find the new centre ground. He will be wise to listen to those in his party who recognise that his landslide is emphatically not a mandate for a return to ‘double liberalism’.

We must hope that when he does nail his colours to the mast, he heeds the growing body of commentary that shows this centre ground is less double liberalism than what Matt Singh at CapX  called “fund the NHS, hang the paedos”.

There is cautious ground for hope here: as David Goodhart has remarked, it is easier for the Tories to move left on the economy than Labour to move right on society. And all the talk this morning is of how the new Tory MPs in the post-industrial North will be driving the party Left on the economy.

If Johnson takes this route, there is good reason to think it will be popular (at least with ordinary voters). He will face some formidable resistance though. For if Johnson’s victory was forged by a new coalition of socially conservative working-class voters and Shire Tories left voiceless by Cameroon double liberalism, he will also have his party’s Thatcherite wing to please.

Not to mention the unfolding negotiations with the EU, in which the bargaining power of the entire EU27 and its institutionalised double-liberalism will be arrayed against him. Balancing these exigencies with the demands of his newly-minted electoral coalition (and the shrill fury of the domestic double-liberal ruling class) will be challenging to say the least.

One thing, though, is clear: Boris has been voted in, to all intents and purposes, on a promise to end the institutionalised hegemony of double-liberal managerial politics. He will have to deliver, or face a renewed wave of electoral fury.

Any sincere effort to achieve this will mean difficult confrontations. Behind Johnson’s victory today stands a mass of voices that have long been excluded from politics, first by a discourse that held them in contempt and then by the progressive removal of salient policies from democratic accountability.

The small-c social conservatism of many working-class voters has long been traduced as morally beyond the pale by the Left, just as the communitarian economic policies favoured by much of the same demographic have been treated as romantic foolishness by the right. Rehabilitating these voices will mean challenging heavyweight opinion on both Right and Left. It will also mean for Johnson the delicate task of rescuing some political priorities that are salient to this group — such as immigration, family and law and order — from the embrace of demagoguery, without himself falling prey to its clutches.

Will Boris succeed in defusing the electorate’s bubbling anger by bringing long-excluded voices and priorities back into mainstream political debate? That remains to be seen. We must hope he has the courage to try.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.


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peter lucey
peter lucey
4 years ago

please delete – too late! – but thx to Ms Herrington for an excellent piece

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
4 years ago

The main problem with the headline is that it is in the future tense…