Following the decisive result of the 2019 British general election, it is clear that Boris Johnson’s famous victory has the potential to go down in history as a generation-defining moment – akin to Margaret Thatcher winning power in 1979 or Tony Blair’s election in 1997.
The extraordinary difference this time is that while Thatcher and Blair were swept to power from the position of Opposition, despatching tired and discredited governments, Johnson has secured the Conservatives’ biggest working majority since the 1980s despite the Party having been in power for nine years (albeit for most of that time without a majority of its own).
Given that Johnson had only been Prime Minister for a matter of weeks before calling for an election in order to secure a mandate of his own, there is quite the sense that this was a ‘change’ election, even if technically it is the same party which remains in power.
There’s no doubt that a seismic shift has taken place in British politics since the 2016 referendum when we voted to leave the European Union – a campaign I was proud to have established and led as CEO, with Boris Johnson bringing his charisma, conviction and joie de vivre to the campaign trail as our chief cheerleader in the country, and Dominic Cummings as our brilliant campaign director.
Many of the largest votes to leave the EU in 2016 came from some of Labour’s strongest heartlands in the post-industrial Midlands and North of England. And what was remarkable about this election was that a significant number of those seats elected Conservative MPs for the first time in decades – and in some cases for the first time ever. It’s not dissimilar to the way that Donald Trump won the confidence of voters in the “rust belt” states and could very well win their support once again next November.
As recently as 2015, the Conservatives trailed Labour 37 percent to 29 percent among so-called DE voters – lower-working class manual workers and those not in work at all. Yet pollster YouGov found at this election that the Conservatives amassed 47 percent support among this group, compared to barely one third backing Labour.
Indeed, the Labour Party is in a state of disarray: led to yet another defeat by their (now soon-to-depart) far-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, they have been tainted by allegations of anti-semitism and many of their activists would make Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren look like a moderate. The party’s refusal to accept the EU referendum result certainly lost it support in many areas, while the party’s leading spokesmen and cheerleaders have thus far failed to acknowledge that there was anything unattractive about their high-spending, high-taxing, statist nationalizing agenda.
Nowhere was a Conservative victory more iconic than in the constituency of Sedgefield in County Durham in the North East of England – a former coal mining area that was represented in Parliament between 1983 and 2007 by none other than Tony Blair. So it was no surprise to see Johnson make a trip up there the day after the final results were announced for a victory lap where he specifically channelled Blair when he declared: “We are not the masters, we are the servants now. Our job is to serve the people of this country.”
What Boris Johnson now needs to do is to deliver on the expectations of the voters in places like Sedgefield. It goes without saying that his first priority must be to deliver Brexit – and with a working parliamentary majority in the 80s, there is no question that his exit deal with the EU will be passed and enacted by the end of January.
The challenge then will be on several levels: firstly, to fund the infrastructure of which some of these “left behind” areas are in such desperate need, whether that be access to high-speed broadband or improved road and rail networks; secondly, to ensure the education and training opportunities are there to skill the population for the 21st century jobs market; and thirdly to attract investment into those more deprived areas, which may well involve creating “free ports” or special enterprise zones which would enjoy particular tax breaks.
The British economy remains fundamentally in a strong place and the jobs numbers continue to tell a good story. If there has been a sense of stagnation over the last year or so, it is only because of the parliamentary gridlock and indecision over Brexit that has made businesses delay making investment decisions. Merely securing a parliamentary majority will act as a shot in the arm to the British economy. And as the UK leaves the EU, we can rejoice in escaping Brussels’ agenda of ever more regulation and proposed tax harmonization, which would only act a drag on economic growth.
Having delivered on Brexit, I’m confident that Boris Johnson will then only grow in stature as a politician on the world stage as the UK reclaims its status as a full independent nation once again. During the referendum campaign, I saw him up close declaiming the virtues of a country that embraces a free-trading, outward-looking, economically-liberal internationalist agenda. Indeed, even before his election victory, he acted as host of the 70th anniversary meeting of NATO – the world’s most successful international alliance, established in 1949 with its first headquarters in London.
With the influence of Angela Merkel waning and Emmanuel Macron distracted by domestic challenges and economic difficulties, Johnson is perfectly poised to take up the cudgels as second only to Donald Trump as far as influential Western leaders are concerned. And as a pair, they have important work to do on negotiating a US-UK trade deal. Whereas some would prefer Johnson to prioritize finalizing a deal with the EU, time is of the essence and the British Government will pursue talks with partners in Washington and elsewhere in parallel.
New York-born Johnson, like Trump, treasures the special relationship and it will be interesting to see who is selected to fill the vacancy of British Ambassador in Washington. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Johnson opts for an eye-catching political appointment rather than a Foreign Office time server.
A number of observers and commentators seriously underestimated Boris Johnson ahead of this election. Yet having twice been elected Mayor of (left-leaning) London, reached the parts other politicians could not reach during the 2016 referendum and then secured a renegotiated Brexit deal with the EU that no one said was possible this fall, one can only imagine what he can achieve with the comfort of a mandate from the British people and a comfortable parliamentary majority. His sense of duty, combined with a sense of fun, a way with words and a desire to “get stuff done” make me incredibly optimistic for the UK’s prospects in the 2020s. This holiday season sees Britain heading towards a great decade.