For some Prime Ministers, their premierships are defined by one thing. Winston Churchill and the war, Anthony Eden and Suez, Tony Blair and Iraq, Gordon Brown and the financial crisis, David Cameron and that referendum. For Boris Johnson, it will be Brexit.
True, Johnson’s relatively short time in office has been dominated by the pandemic. But his premiership was both created and defined by Brexit; it was a response to a crisis that our political system showed itself unable to resolve. From the very beginning, it was anchored in a promise to do what MPs had shown themselves incapabable of doing – to Get Brexit Done.
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By securing the Withdrawal Agreement, and now a Brexit trade deal, Johnson has delivered what so many of his critics said could not be delivered. And along the way he has challenged our understanding of him as a leader and politician. While many said that he would prefer a no-deal over the withdrawal agreement, he went for the latter; while many said that he would prefer a no-deal over a trade deal, he went for the latter; and while much of our increasingly shrill media and Twitterati has presented him as an ideological zealot, comparable to the likes of Donald Trump, he has once again shown himself to be what many people on these islands consider themselves to be — a pragmatist.
One of the reasons why Johnson has retained much of his support over the past year is that he ended up leading a reassertion of popular sovereignty over parliamentary sovereignty. Brexit was always destined to lead our country into a constitutional crisis because it was the first occasion in living memory when a majority of people outside of parliament asked for something that a majority of people inside parliament did not want to give: a new settlement, a radical and real rupture from the status-quo that had emerged during the preceding half-century. When parliament refused, the pendulum swung back to the people and at the general election of 2019, they ensured that their request for change was respected and delivered. Johnson and his premiership became their vehicle — and they gave that vehicle the largest majority for any Conservative since Margaret Thatcher’s final majority in 1987. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Thatcher and Johnson have held the largest Conservative majorities of the modern era; both have displayed an instinctive ability to tap into deeper currents that were both overlooked and underestimated by the London-centric commentariat.
Johnson now finds himself as the first Conservative leader who can credibly claim to have triumphed over the Europe question, an issue that took down all four of his Conservative predecessors in No 10. One way or another, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May were all brought down by Europe. Johnson, though, has triumphed over it. And he has done so while realigning his party and much of the country. Major, Cameron and May never really understood the true power of the conservative electorate, or the extent to which the conservative brand could connect with parts of the country that were long thought beyond reach.
Few, if any, Conservative ‘modernisers’ who dominated the past two decades grasped how the underlying foundations of Britain were shifting in profound ways. They fell into the trap of believing that social and economic liberalism was the winning formula when in fact it was nearing its sell-by date. On a good day, the Cameroons could just about scrape 38% in the polls; today, that is what Johnson is still averaging after an incredibly difficult and some might say disastrous first year in office. That is the power of the coalition that supports him.
Over the past 30 years, nearly everybody in British politics has underestimated one of the more specific energies behind this realignment – Euroscepticism. In the 1990s, people laughed at the Eurosceptics and called them Bastards; in the 2000s, they dismissed and derided them as fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists; and in the 2010s, they framed them as the Little Englanders who had been duped by Silicon Valley, Cambridge Analytica and what was written on the side of a big red bus.
Yet still, they won. They took numerous detours along the way, of course -the Referendum Party and Sir James Goldsmith, UKIP and Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party and Boris Johnson- but throughout they showed a dogged persistence, a sense of strategy and a commitment to the cause that, for some reason, their rivals never shared or understood.
A cross-class coalition came together to ask for things that even today are routinely absent in our everyday conversation about Brexit: a more directly accountable democracy, a political system in which serious and meaningful opposition is allowed and a country in which people can seriously influence the decisions that are affecting their daily lives. None of these things were even mentioned as I sat through much of the media coverage of Johnson’s Brexit trade deal this week. Even today, more than four years on from the referendum, our ‘conversation’ about Brexit continues to reduce it simply and crudely to economic self-interest — as if the only interest the people of this country have in politics is to extract financial benefit. The people who will be cheering on news of the deal today and over the next few weeks won’t be talking about GDP; they’ll be talking about the one thing that politics is really all about – power, and the restoration of power in their daily lives.
Insiders have struggled to hear this call over the decades, but Johnson, Dominic Cummings and others within No 10 heard it and responded. Even today, as we draw to the end of 2020, the Old Etonian and Oxford graduate holds an 8-point lead over Labour among the working-class and a 42-point lead among Leavers. These voters are not idiots; they can all see Johnson’s mistakes, gaffes and amateurism, just like the rest of us. But they have ultimately stayed with him because of what he represents: restoring power to them.
This is why the deal really matters. It will now form an integral aspect of Johnson’s narrative as we journey toward the next election in 2024. You don’t need to be a political spin doctor to predict what he will say: “You asked me to deliver Brexit. You asked me to take control over immigration. You asked me to restore our democracy. You asked me to redirect our national conversation away from London and back to the regions. I did all of those things. Now give me another term to see it all through.”
His critics will talk endlessly about economic statistics and job losses in the Red Wall. They will compare every possible piece of economic data with its equivalent in Germany, France and the Netherlands. Economists will release forecast after forecast, predicting the imminent or longer-term implosion of the national economy.
Many of our commentators will fall back on the ‘declinism’ that dominated the Left after previous eras of Conservative dominance in the 1950s and the 1980s. They will resurrect the arguments of Tom Nairn, Correlli Barnett, Anthony Sampson and Michael Shanks and a new generation of left-leaning declinists will appear — to shriek and point with glee at what they will present as irrefutable evidence that Britain is in decline, that the nation is finished, that the people were duped. Occasionally, the mask will slip and we will once again see the uglier side of declinism, namely that some people who claim to want the best for Britain actually do not like Britain at all.
Somewhere along the way, the wiser ones will notice what their predecessors were finally forced to acknowledge after not one but three straight election victories for the Conservatives in the 1950s and 1980s – that despising your own country does not sit well with ordinary people. The gloom and doom that will now inevitably descend over our national debate will, in the end, only bolster Johnson further – much like it provided the backdrop to 17 years of Conservative dominance during the 1980s and 1990s. Why? Because most normal people who do not live their lives on Twitter will not hand power to people who appear to loathe everything about the country they love.
A more fruitful and in, the longer-run, electorally profitable reply to where we find ourselves today would be to join the wider conversation about how to build back better – how to address the very real and meaningful grievances that left so many of our fellow citizens feeling disillusioned and disgruntled in the first place.
The United Kingdom has meaningfully decoupled from the European Union. It has regained control over its immigration policy and borders. It is no longer paying into the EU budget. It is outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. It can strike trade deals with other countries around the world. And over the longer-term there will be much less rule-taking and much more rule-making.
“From January 1st,” Boris Johnson told the people on the eve of a difficult Christmas, “we are outside of the customs union and outside of the single market. British laws will be made solely by the British parliament, interpreted by UK judges sitting in UK courts … For the first time since 1973, we will be an independence coastal state.” I suspect that for more than a few people that will sound just fine.
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