January 13, 2020

Boris won big last year. So big that some people think he’s got the next election in the bag too. Overturning a majority of 80 is just too much of a mountain to climb for the next Labour leader.

Or is it? Professor Philip Cowley doesn’t think so. In a letter to The Times he challenges Labour fatalism (and, by implication, Conservative complacency):

“It is difficult right now to predict a Labour victory at the next election. But it was difficult in 1992 and in 1959, and one of the lessons of recent general elections is that voters are becoming increasingly volatile and willing to change parties.”

In the 1959 general election the Tories won 365 seats — which is exactly the number they’ve got now. However, that wasn’t enough to save them in 1964, when Labour regained power after 13 years in opposition.

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Boris Johnson wouldn’t be the first Prime Minister to lose (or almost lose) a stonking majority in the space of just one parliament. For instance, in 2010, Gordon Brown lost 97 Labour seats, wiping out the 66 seat majority that Tony Blair won in 2005. In 1950, the party also suffered major losses — reducing the 1945 landslide majority of 146 to just 5 (which was lost altogether in 1951). But even that downfall was overshadowed by the 1929 general election, in which Stanley Baldwin managed to blow a Conservative majority of 210 (won in 1924). Oops!

Perhaps the most dramatic reversal of fortune came between 1900, when the Conservatives won a majority of 135, and 1906, when Liberals won a majority of 129. This is the precedent that should really give Boris the sweats. It may be a long time ago, but the parallels with the present are all-too-relevant.

The Conservative (or “Unionist”) leader in 1906 was Arthur Balfour, who had become Prime Minister in 1902. He owed his political career to the previous PM, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (a.k.a. Robert Gascoyne-Cecil) who happened to be Balfour’s uncle. The Marquess’s promotion of his nephew probably explains the phrase “Bob’s your uncle”; it certainly explains why such an unlikely character ended-up running the country. Balfour’s attitude can be summed-up in one word, “aloof” ; or in the ten words of his best-known quotation: “nothing matters very much and few things matter at all”.

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Unlike Balfour, Boris radiates enthusiasm for the hurly-burly of politics — but beneath the bonhomie, one may detect a similar sense of ironic detachment. Reflecting on the fall of the Balfour government, Henry Campbell-Bannerman (the Liberal leader in 1906) put it down to “a rising indignation against their general spirit of flippancy, levity, cynicism and indifference to high principle”. If Johnson were to write out a list of tendencies to guard against, he’d do well to start with those.

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Leaving personality to one side, what else went wrong for the Unionist government in the first years of the 20th century?

1900 was the original “khaki election” — a reference to the uniforms of the British army during the Second Boer War. However, as that conflict dragged on, the country’s patriotic fervour turned to discontent. That’s something for the current Prime Minister to bear in mind as tensions escalate with Iran: as well as destroying lives, messy open-ended military conflicts destroy governments.

Trade was another issue of the day that’s just as relevant in 2020. It was a cause of deep division within the government. Balfour was caught between the advocates of “tariff reform” (i.e. protectionism) and the defenders of free trade. He attempted to plot a course of compromise, but alienated both sides — with protectionists like Joseph Chamberlain and free traders like Winston Churchill quitting the government (indeed, Churchill crossed the floor and joined the Liberals).

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Boris Johnson will also find himself caught between two sides on trade policy — i.e. those who prioritise access to European markets and those who’d prefer to see the UK cosy-up to the Americans. Johnson must avoid Balfour’s mistake. Equidistance won’t work. As on Brexit itself, he must pick a side and make it his own — but which side?

Again history provides a guide. It wasn’t just the internal ruptures that sunk the Balfour government. Trade also became a weapon for the Liberals, who portrayed government policy as being against the interests of ordinary working people. 

So, as he faces his own set of crunch decisions, the key question Boris must answer is “who benefits?” For instance, if the big winner of a trade deal with the US is the City of London and the big loser of higher trade barriers with Europe is manufacturing in the North, then he can kiss his new seats goodbye.

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It’s worth asking why the Balfour and Salisbury governments existed at all. This was an age before full male suffrage or any female suffrage, but it’s still extraordinary that a party of earls and marquesses could win the support of millions of working men — and not just in the countryside, but in the towns and cities too. How did a party rooted in the pre-industrial past make it through into modernity?

The answer is by adapting to reality. From Disraeli’s One Nation conservatism to Lord Randolph Churchill’s Tory Democracy, they made themselves relevant to the newly enfranchised masses (not least by giving them the vote in the first place). Even the crusty old Marquess of Salisbury managed to hold together a broad-based Tory coalition.

Under Balfour, though, it fell apart. He allowed his party to be seen as the class enemy of the common man. The Liberals portrayed tariffs as a tax on basic foodstuffs. The 1902 Education Act, though progressive in many ways, was seen as favouring Anglicans over non-conformists. And then there was the issue of indentured Chinese labourers in South Africa. Their atrocious working conditions were condemned as a form of slavery — and also as a means of undercutting British workers. “Is THIS what we fought for?” the Liberals asked.

On all these issues and others, the Conservatives were placed on the side of money and privilege — allowing the Opposition to pose as the champions of the people.

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Boris Johnson won in 2019 because he put together a broad-based coalition of his own — uniting the Tory shires with working-class supporters in what used to be Labour heartlands. It too will fall apart if the Government doesn’t side with the people against the forces of economic and social disruption. That means restraining the hyper-capitalists in the Conservative ranks — ministers like Liz Truss and all the other “#Uber-riding #Airbnb-ing #Deliveroo-eating #freedomfighters.”

Sorry Liz, but that’s not what Brexit Britain fought for at all. The British people don’t want to be governed from Brussels, but we don’t want to be ruled from Silicon Valley either. Let the tech lords ply their trade in our markets, but only if they respect our privacy, pay their taxes and treat British workers with dignity.

Fairness and respect is what the Boris coalition expects from the government they elected. And it is what this government must deliver — or else.

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Here’s one last thing about 1906 for Boris to think about: the Gladstone-MacDonald pact. This was a secret agreement between the Liberals and Labour not to split the anti-Conservative vote — and it worked. There was no such pact in 2019, but, under a new Labour leader, next time could be very different.

So cast your mind forward to 2024: The Tories have been in power for fourteen years, Corbyn is a distant memory and the opposition is united. Coming first for the fifth time in a row won’t be easy.

Labour may have a mountain to climb, but so does Boris Johnson. He’d better be ready.

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