Boris Johnson is re-elected as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Credit: Stringer / Anadolu Agency via Getty

December 12, 2019   6 mins

If you believe the exit polls, then Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party are set to win the largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher’s majority in 1987, while Labour will fall to their lowest number of seats since 1935.

In the final days of the campaign, the Tories averaged 43%, the Labour Party 33%, the Liberal Democrats 12%, the Brexit Party 3% and the Greens 2%. Johnson, a politician who spent much of the year being mocked and criticised, heading into polling day with an average 10-point lead. He is in a stronger position today than Theresa May was in 2017, when she narrowly missed out on a majority government.

There’s been much talk of volatility during this campaign, and it is true that a large number of voters switched their political loyalties. In only six months, the combined share of the vote for Britain’s two parties has rocketed from just 57% back in April to nearly 80% today — a remarkable shift that reflects the considerable churn taking place beneath the surface. But it is also true that the Conservatives have consistently dominated the 2019 campaign.

The incumbent party has led in every single poll since MPs voted to hold the election back in October. This is something that neither Theresa May in 2017 nor David Cameron in 2015 and 2010 managed to achieve. Of the 65 polls that have been conducted since the start of the election campaign, the Conservatives have not only led in all of them but have held comfortable double-digit leads in 43.

In the final days of the campaign, polling by Survation handed the party a 14-point lead and its highest share of the vote since Ted Heath led them to a surprise victory over Harold Wilson in 1970. While some polls point to a tighter race, the vast majority suggest that Johnson’s premiership is about to be transformed from a footnote in the history books into a full chapter in the story of contemporary Britain.

If this is the outcome then it is already clear that the General Election of 2019 will throw up big questions for Britain’s two main parties. If they are successful then the Conservatives, for only the second time in history, will have been returned to power at four consecutive elections. But they will have done so while attracting an electorate that is profoundly different from that which handed David Cameron his majority just four years ago.

Whatever the precise result, it seems likely that the Conservatives are about to enjoy one of their strongest results among the working class, with the latest polls giving them a striking 17-point lead over Labour among the “C2DE” skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers.

This realignment-of-sorts will, in itself, raise important questions. How will Johnson, an instinctive social and economic liberal, appease and retain voters who instinctively lean a little Left on the economy and a little Right on culture? Reflected in our changing political geography is a new Conservative electorate that will be looking not only for a meaningful break from the European Union, a tougher stance on crime, reform of immigration and a general slowing of the pace of change but also a more interventionist or even protectionist economic regime. Boris Johnson might be about to inherit a Conservative electorate of whom 86% want to see immigration reduced and 40% rail renationalised.

Johnson and his team are clearly aware of the dilemma. They already stand a little to the Left of where David Cameron and George Osborne were, revealing how it is the centre-right, and not the centre-left, that has a stronger grasp of where most voters instinctively are. Those who have spent recent months shrieking about Johnson’s desire to build a ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ — a libertarian settlement fixated with deregulation and financial services — are today struggling to make sense of a Conservative manifesto that advocates higher public spending, a higher minimum wage, more money for the National Health Service, more money for infrastructure, more redistribution, more action on regional inequality, state aid for failing businesses and a buy-British procurement policy.

This is not exactly putting free market capitalism on steroids. Most voters think that on balance globalisation is a good thing but that they would like some extra protection from its economic and cultural winds. Johnson seems to have grasped that.

But he will still face questions. If he wins a majority then Boris Johnson could claim to be the only Conservative leader to have truly triumphed over the “Europe question”; to have rallied a re-aligned Conservatism around his withdrawal agreement and to have finally put that question, which has haunted conservatives for decades, to bed.

But in its place will stand new tensions: between economic free-traders and protectionists; between socially liberal elites and socially conservative voters; between those who will advocate a pivot back to Remainia and those who contend that the party should not just sink but cultivate its new roots in Leave Land.

There will also be more direct questions for Johnson. With a majority of his own he will no longer be able to leave his political creed undefined. One question more than any other will hang over his time in office: what is Johnson-ism? Is it just a pragmatic and adaptable brand of liberal-conservatism that claims to stand in the Disraeli or Macmillan tradition?

Or, as David Goodhart notes in this publication, does a victory signal the arrival of a more intellectually interesting brand of conservatism that is more akin to a cross-class Christian Democracy than the rebirth of Thatcherism? Furthermore, is Johnson merely reactive to public opinion or does there lurk a more coherent and even philosophical body of thought which, protected by a majority, is willing to take on the deeper and intractable policy challenges in modern Britain?

For a defeated Jeremy Corbyn and Labour Party, the questions will be much harder to answer. Corbynistas are already avoiding the awkward fact that throughout this entire campaign, they have never come within six points of an incumbent Conservative Party that has been in office for nearly a decade. The hopes of Britain’s main opposition party are now limited to a hung Parliament and what would almost certainly be a fragile, chaotic and short-lived Labour-led coalition or alliance, if that is even possible.

In some other, alternate universe, you might expect a decade-long economic squeeze, austerity and a highly divisive debate over Britain’s place in the world to propel a progressive, internationalist party of the left to the very forefront, if not firmly into the lead. But Corbynism has spent this campaign like it spent much of the past two years: firmly adrift in the polls.

This speaks to another question that will likely be raised by the 2019 election: is Labour still a party of the working class? Look at the latest polls and the answer is, clearly, no. Perhaps one of the most damning assessments of Corbynism is reflected in the fact that a Conservative Party led by an Eton and Oxford graduate now enjoys commanding leads in blue-collar Britain. Boris Johnson has grasped one of the new, unwritten laws in politics: that it is much easier for the Right to move Left on economics than it is for the Left to move Right on culture.

But he is also helped by a Labour project that often appears to be pushing away the very socially conservative and patriotic workers that it needs to endure. If there is another defeat, then, where does Labour go from here? If Corbynism is an ideological rather than an electoral project then when will the moderates leave the building? With the local associations sewn up and an instinctively pro-Corbyn membership it seems unlikely that a post-election civil war within Labour would leave the dwindling number of moderates in charge. Is it then finally time to accept the inevitable and depart en masse?

For Labour there will be no easy answers to any of this. The 2019 election will probably underline how Labour has, to all intents and purposes, broken into two distinct parties. On one side stand an awkward alliance of socially liberal white-collar professionals, students and ethnic minorities who reside in London, a few other big cities and the university towns. Together, these groups comprise what Thomas Piketty calls the “Brahmin Left”; a faction that is far more interested in expressing its social liberalism and pro-Remain views than delivering genuine economic reform and solidarity for Labour’s traditional voters.

On the other stand those blue-collar and socially conservative workers who reside in small towns, Labour’s northern heartlands and Wales. As we first pointed out five years ago in Revolt on the Right, these are voters who feel left behind not only by the economic transformation of Britain but also by the sudden rise of social or even “hyper” social liberalism, a creed cherished by the Brahmin Left but which workers neither support nor respect.

This is as much about value loss as economic loss. Consistently, for more than a decade, Labour has been losing ground among the latter group, who lean left on the economy but a little right on culture and identity. When the Brahmin Left reduces their instinctive social conservatism to racism or xenophobia, it simply confirms the rumours that are now circulating through blue-collar Britain: that Labour is no longer a home for them. Given that these groups hold fundamentally irreconcilable values, it is not easy to see how they can be held together either at this election or the one after.

Whatever happens in the early hours of Friday morning, it seems likely that the general election of 2019 will not only be remembered for providing answers to our Brexit crisis but also for raising deeper questions about the changing nature of our politics: the shifting sands that lie beneath our two main parties and a broader realignment that seems to be coming ever more into focus.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.