by Austen Ivereigh in AMERICA, The Jesuit Review, 20 December 20
Combining an appetite for power with ideological vagueness and counterintuitive alliances, the world’s most successful election-winning machine has done it again. Just as the Tory squires in the 19th century made common cause with angry workers against the rising middle class and their new-fangled ideas, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party last week gained a thumping majority of seats in Parliament by winning over lifelong working-class Labour voters.
As dawn broke after polling day, it was clear that the Boris Johnson earthquake had shattered the “red wall” of Labour strongholds across north Wales and in England’s northwest, Midlands and northeast. “When someone walks into a polling booth, they’re answering a question,” Isaac Levido, the 36-year-old Australian coordinator of Mr. Johnson’s election campaign, later told journalists. “The successful campaign frames the questions that voters are asking. What was the question that Labour was asking?”
The Tories’ question was clear: how to get Brexit “done.”
They knew “Workington Man,” as commentators described the Brexit- and now Johnson-voting working-class voter. Because Mr. Johnson himself had mobilized Workington Man, he and his team—essentially the pro-Brexit campaign in 2016—grasped Workington Man’s concerns. They got that lower-middle-class folk in small-town Britain had a very different perception of the state of the world than affluent and middle-class metropolitans.
Workington Man had many concrete aspirations and grievances—about the state of health care and schools, the cost of living and property, the state of the roads, the number of newcomers—that made their way into the Conservative manifesto “not just topic by topic, but almost word for word,” recalled one of its authors. So, too, did Workington Man’s one overriding conviction: that only when the politicians got past Brexit could these problems be addressed.
Britain’s voters believed they had spoken clearly in the 2016 referendum and saw Parliament’s endless wranglings over Brexit as proof that politicians were ignoring them for the same lot of well-off and educated Remainer folk pining for Brussels. Hence Mr. Johnson’s success.
His gnomic Anglo-Saxon mantra, “Let’s get Brexit done,” repeated robotically throughout the campaign, was perfectly pitched. So too was his un-Tory-like spending list, promising dozens of hospitals and thousands of nurses, roads and railways in left-behind areas and pledging to raise up the lowly through tax cuts for the working poor and a higher living wage. He did it all with panache and a sense of fun, convincing Britons who wanted to believe it that far from being a horrendous self-inflicted wound, Brexit has opened the door to a wonderful new future.
Hence, too, the spectacular failure of Jeremy Corbyn, the puritan left-winger convinced of his own righteousness, who led Labour to its worst rout since 1935. Mr. Corbyn seemed more concerned with the Palestinians and the Venezuelans than with working-class Leavers, and his confused stance on Brexit—he called for a new agreement with Brussels, on which there would be a second referendum in which he would be agnostic—seemed to them a betrayal.
Caroline Flint, an M.P. who lost the South Yorkshire seat she had held for Labour since 1997, recalled that at the doorways of her Don Valley constituency she heard angry complaints about “Jeremy, Brexit or both.” According to Ms. Flint, Mr. Corbyn’s yo-yo Brexit policy—the result of struggling to hold together Leave-voting constituencies like hers and a Remainer urban membership—killed Labour’s legitimacy on the doorstep.“Now the Tories lay claim to be Britain’s party of the working class,” she lamented in the Guardian.
The prime minister knew it too. He said it was vital for the Conservative Party now to understand “the way in which we have changed the political map of this country” and to “answer the challenge that the British people have given us.” Mr. Johnson said he knew that many pencils had “hovered” over the ballot paper, and he promised to repay the trust he had been shown by traditional Labour voters.
British politics over the next decade will be determined by the success or failure of that pledge.
After years of political stalemate and polarization, the three-week election campaign promised to be full of lies, bitterness and conflict. It did not disappoint. The campaigning “intensified and deepened the kind of obstructive and destructive tone of the politics of the past two years,” Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, told me when I asked him to look back. But responsibility for the destructiveness falls not just on the politicians. The cardinal blames the print media, in particular, for feeding conflict and high emotion.
Quoting Pope Francis, he and the bishops had in their pre-election voting guide urged Catholics not to “watch from the balconies,” but to make their vote count. Because no party was close to Catholic fundamentals, the cardinal asked voters “to exercise a discernment about how we might get closer to where we want to get” and to avoid the temptation to throw up their hands at the complexity and distastefulness on offer.
A big difficulty for Catholics concerned by the rise of nationalism was the shrinking of the space on the left for Christian conscience. While all the parties promised to boost support for pregnant mothers, Labour and the Liberal Democrats broke with the tradition that abortion be treated as a nonpartisan issue, pledging to decriminalize abortion up to birth if elected.
One of those caught off-guard by this change was Robert Flello, a Catholic convert who was Labour M.P. for Stoke-on-Trent South from 2005 to 2017 but who, appalled by his party’s lurch to the left under Mr. Corbyn, had since joined the Lib-Dems. Selected as Lib-Dem candidate in his old seat, Mr. Flello—a prominent member of a bipartisan parliamentary pro-life group—was suddenly deselected days later after party grandees discovered his tweets opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Mr. Flello is now bringing a discrimination claim against the party, arguing that his views are mainstream religious convictions that are protected under the Equality Act 2010.
Mr. Flello agreed, pointing to polling by leading U.K. anti-abortion charity Right to Life that shows, he says, that “mainstream Catholic teaching is shared by very large proportions of the population who don’t think there should be abortion up to birth or on any grounds, and don’t like the Liberals and Labour pushing euthanasia.” Mr. Flello’s own positions—socially conservative, center-left on social and economic matters—sat well with his working-class, Leave-voting Staffordshire constituency until he lost his seat to the Conservatives in 2017. Stoke-on-Trent Man went for the Tories, going blue as Labour went woke.
“Where the conservatives under Boris Johnson appears to be, is where the vast majority of the population is,” said Mr. Flello. The Conservative M.P. who defeated him in 2017 this time increased his vote share by 13 percentage points at the expense of Labour. In what was once a traditional Labour seat Tories won over 60 percent of the popular vote, Labour just over 30 percent and the Lib-Dems less than 5 percent.
Nationwide, Mr. Johnson’s victory was less decisive: 45 percent of the popular vote compared with Labour’s 33 percent. But passed through Britain’s first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all voting system, it meant the Conservatives now have 365 out of 650 seats, more than the other parties (Labour: 203; the Scottish National Party: 48; Lib-Dems: 11) combined. So expect swift passage of legislation through a suborned Parliament and getting Brexit “done”—at least Stage One—by Jan. 31. Expect, too, Parliament approving spending on what have become known as “red wall projects,” such as infrastructure investments in left-behind areas. But will Mr. Johnson’s broader ambition of resurrecting One-Nation Toryism succeed? Or will it rub up against the brutal underlying realities of growing tribal division?
The phrase “One-Nation Conservativism” harks back to the Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, whose 1845 novel Sybil spoke of the Conservative Party reaching out to both “the rich and the poor” to bring together “nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy, who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”
Yet now it is more than about just rich versus poor; Britons are divided these days into many new tribes—and nations. The ongoing rise of pro-E.U. Scottish nationalism, for example, threatens to split the union. Where Parliament’s dithering over Brexit was interpreted as dismissive of Workington Man, Mr. Johnson’s determination to Get Brexit Done is seen as dismissive of Scottish concerns—hence the S.N.P. taking 48 of the 59 seats north of the border, which it will now use to press hard for a second independence referendum in order to remain in the European Union.
Consider, too, the split between the older, whiter and less-educated sectors of the population that voted Tory and the younger, educated and more mobile populations that stuck with Labour, especially in London. The latter are repelled by tough rhetoric on crime, hostility to migrants and the jingoism that has accompanied Brexit. Only 19 percent of those who backed Remain voted Tory last week, compared with 74 percent of those who backed Leave; the Tories’ lead among women was lower than among men; and while 64 percent of over-65s backed Mr. Johnson, just 20 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds did, and only 34 percent of those aged 25 to 49.
As Mr. Johnson negotiates a new relationship with Europe—what Cardinal Nichols calls moving from Getting Brexit Done to Making Brexit Work—many believe that these tribal divisions can only sharpen.
The pain of the post-industrial areas has been heard. The Brexit revolt has succeeded. The prime minister’s promise to rebalance public spending and political focus from south to north, from rich to poor, from city to town—and thus attend to the sense of loss at social and economic change, to the existential displacement so many feel—is surely overdue. Much now depends on Mr. Johnson, not least his ability to keep open European markets for British goods. If he is sincere, “good on him,” said Mr. Flello.
So I couldn’t resist a cheeky question. If Mr. Johnson protects life, spends on health care, raises the living wage and creates infrastructure and jobs for the north, does that mean the Catholic former M.P. for Stoke-on-Trent South, appalled by the Marxist Corbyn and hounded by Lib-Dem secularists over his pro-life views, might find a home in Boris’s national conservatives?
Too soon to say, said Mr. Flello. Like Stoke-on-Trent Man, he will be watching and waiting.