Boris Johnson’s victory will be picked over by pollsters, political scientists and, one day, historians to establish why it happened and what it means. For now, though, we can say this: Thursday was a win for the Conservative Party but not necessarily for conservatism.
Johnson’s candidates demolished Labour’s ‘red wall’ in seats like Bishop Auckland, Redcar and Blyth Valley — seats which have never before gone blue — by promising to represent traditional Labour voters left behind by Jeremy Corbyn’s party. These people have not become Tories; they have hired the Tories on a temporary contract. Do a decent job for them and they might take you on full-time. A new blue wall of working-class heartlands is the prize.
Johnson convinced these voters on Thursday by promising to honour the outcome of the 2016 referendum and by offering an alternative to a Labour Party overrun by extremists and anti-Semites. Older Labour voters in particular still remember the bloody outrages of the IRA and grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. Their grandchildren may have chanted Corbyn’s name but they knew him and his ilk all too well.
What made it easier for traditional Labour supporters to switch parties this time, however, was a decidedly Tory-lite manifesto. In the past, Johnson has posed as a state-slashing Thatcherite — and many other things besides — but that is not the Boris who won the hearts of working-class England. While the manifesto was not the spending splurge some have characterised it as, it nonetheless proposed increased outlays for services that matter a great deal to the Tories’ new voters: £13billion for new hospitals, £5billion to end the benefit freeze, and £17billion to hike the threshold at which National Insurance payments kick in.
Given these and other pledges, it is difficult to see how the Tories can get through the next five years without raising taxes. That is anathema to the Conservative Party, or at least it was to the old, pre-Boris Conservative Party, and for lifelong Tories still celebrating Thursday night’s triumph a nasty hangover may lie ahead.
As the Conservative Party will have to change, so too will the country. As Nicola Sturgeon seizes upon her party’s result to demand yet another referendum on breaking up the United Kingdom, those whose idea of defending the Union is giving the SNP more tools with which to crack it apart are already counselling the devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament. Regional devolutionists may join in this opportunism by using the Tories’ new strength in the north of England as leverage for the regional assemblies they have tried and failed to win at the ballot box.
The Prime Minister should recognise this as the elite put-up job that it is. The constitutional vandals who have done so much in Scotland and Wales to undermine the Union want to extend their destructive experiment to regional England. But whether it’s Sturgeon or the future Sturgeons of Yorkshire, Manchester and Merseyside, transferring powers from one level of government to another and expanding the size of the political class will not improve policy outcomes for the average voter. You need only look to NHS waiting times and educational attainment in Scotland to see what a £414million parliament and 20 years of devolution buys you.
Instead of sending a power surge to Bute House, the Prime Minister should use this triumph for his unconservative Conservative Party to lead a radical transformation of the balance of power in this country. End the political and media class monologue on legislative devolution and start a new conversation on a radical redistribution of powers to everyday voters. Reject once and for all the nationalist myth that Westminster is an illegitimate governor over everywhere north of the M25 and reject it in the most daring fashion: spread ‘Westminster’ across the entire country.
Some of the key infrastructure of government must remain bolted down in London for logistical reasons but most Whitehall departments and public bodies can, as some already are, be relocated to other parts of the country. Why not move the Treasury to Edinburgh, the Ministry of Defence to Glasgow and the Supreme Court to Manchester?
There is no reason the Department of Education couldn’t be based in Liverpool, the Home Office in Cardiff and the Department for International Trade in Belfast. The Prime Minister and his secretaries of state must remain in regular contact, of course, but technology could do most of the heavy lifting and, besides, nowhere does it say Cabinet meetings must be held in Downing Street. The Scottish cabinet regularly goes on tour; the UK Cabinet could readily do the same.
If this seems like a lot of faffing about, perhaps in some ways it is but a country in which so many feel so alienated from the seat of government is one that must seek radical remedies or find itself in constitutional strife. We can already see in Scotland where hiving off the problem of left-behindness to some mini-me parliament leads.
Besides, multiple power centres already works overseas. South Africa has three capital cities: Pretoria (executive), Cape Town (legislative), and Bloemfontein (judicial). Israel spreads its government departments between Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Rishon LeZion. The most famous example of all is the very supranational entity most devolutionists have spent the past three years holding up as superior to the UK’s governing structure. The European Union has four seats of power, with Strasbourg home to the main parliament; Brussels the Commission, Council of Ministers and secondary parliament; Luxembourg the Secretariat of the parliament and Court of Justice; and Frankfurt the Central Bank.
Rearranging the governmental furniture would bring power closer to the voters (and, more importantly, bring thousands of jobs) but it is still about political infrastructure when Thursday was as much a vote for fairer economic infrastructure. London is a great city and we should be proud of how it represents us to the world, but it has long benefited from unfair advantages and it’s time other cities got a chance.
The new government could correct this imbalance by establishing city- and region-wide enterprise zones, a natural extension of city and region deals, with lower corporation tax rates to attract investment and jobs. Tax incentives could be used to tempt cultural and entertainment venues outside of the capital city and a business rates holiday given to retailers who set up shop in the most deprived areas of the country.
One of the roadblocks to spreading economic opportunity across all locations and social backgrounds is the education divide. Those from the richest areas and the best schools still have the best chances. Counter this by instituting a National Wealth Service, a public agency tasked with informing, supporting and in places providing financial backing to people looking to start or expand a small business, retrain for a changing economy, open a private pension, buy stocks and shares, pay tax for the first time, and other activities currently scattered across various services.
The disparity between London (and the south-east) and the rest of the country, mirroring disparities in wealth and opportunities, has allowed nationalists and populists like Nicola Sturgeon and Nigel Farage to prosper. They have turned ‘Westminster’ into a potent dog-whistle and sold economic self-harm as ‘taking back control’ and ‘taking power into your own hands’. They are charlatans who have succeeded so far because the political establishment has pandered to rather than addressed the grievances they play on.
If Boris Johnson is frightened into appeasing the nationalists and devolutionists with more powers or the Leave ultras with a harder form of Brexit than his already decisive-break deal, his victory on Thursday will have been for nought. He will have blown an historic opportunity out of cowardice and political laziness. Instead, he should seize the chance that he’s been given and reshape the politics and economy of the UK to transfer power not between governments but from government to the people.
Make this a fairer country in which everyone feels they have a stake and not only will the forces of division be seen off, the Tories will with good cause be able to call themselves the people’s party. Don’t be a Conservative, Boris. Be a radical.