Not in his wildest dreams could UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson have envisaged a bigger election win. An 80-seat majority in a polarised political landscape is testimony to the success of Johnson’s simple, yet effective, slogan in last week’s British parliamentary elections of “Get Brexit Done”.
But the big win is also a big challenge. Johnson destroyed the Labour Party’s “red wall” in the north of England and won seats not won by a Conservative leader before.
The Conservative invasion of the “red wall” areas in northern England and Wales has produced a new political map that could change the identity of the Conservative Party and its future programmes.
While the Conservatives are cherishing every moment of their success, the Labour Party is in the midst of a civil war. Losing their historical strongholds in the north is a heavy blow, and the party does not know whether it will recover.
The “red wall” is dominated by small market-town seats around the more diverse safe Labour seats in cities in the midlands and the north of England. They include working class voters, post-industrial cities and leave-leaning seats that voted to leave the European Union in the Brexit Referendum in 2016.
Until last week they had not had a Conservative MP in decades, and the reason they stayed with Labour was a cultural barrier to voting Conservative. Voters in these seats had not forgotten that the reason for their decline had been the policies of former Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher, who neglected traditional industries and focused on services.
The crucial question now is how Johnson will use his massive majority. Will he take a conciliatory approach? Or will he continue with a hardline one?
The answer has come quickly, for the government announced this week that it was going to add a new clause to an existing Brexit bill to make it impossible for parliament to extend the process beyond the end of next year.
The post-Brexit transition period, due to conclude in December 2020, can currently be extended by mutual agreement for up to two years. But an amended withdrawal agreement bill the Commons is set to vote on this week would rule out any extension.
Critics say this raises the chance of leaving the EU without a trade deal. But Cabinet Minister Michael Gove insisted that both the UK and the EU had “committed themselves to making sure that we have a deal” by the end of 2020.
He also promised parliament that it would be able to scrutinise the new bill “in depth”. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer said the move was “reckless and irresponsible” and he argued that Johnson was “prepared to put people’s jobs at risk.”
Downing Street has said the government plans to ask the new parliament to have its first debate and vote on the withdrawal agreement, the legislation needed to ratify Brexit, on Friday this week.
Johnson is expected to get the bill into law with few changes in time for the UK to end its EU membership on 31 January. The government will then have until the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020 to negotiate a free-trade agreement with Brussels before the trade relationship defaults to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.
Senior EU figures, including bloc Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, are sceptical that a deal can be agreed within that time. But Johnson promised during his election campaign that he would not seek an extension to the transition period, persuading UK Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage to stand down his party’s candidates in Tory seats.
As well as ruling out an extension, the British newspaper the Independent has reported that the amended withdrawal agreement may omit previous “provisions to ensure that workers’ rights were not weakened after Brexit.”
Sources in Downing Street said that sticking with the 2020 deadline meant focusing minds in London and Brussels and finishing the Brexit talks quickly to focus on other issues such as the health service, schools, crime and the north-south divide in the UK.
As northern England voted Conservative in the recent elections, it now expects the government to get Brexit done, increase investment in forgotten areas and improve public services.
Johnson did not waste time assuring it that this was exactly what he was going to do. He went to Sedgefield, the former seat of former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, one of the seats that collapsed in the face of the Conservative wave last Thursday night.
Johnson said his party “will repay your trust” and that voters had “changed the Conservative Party for the better.” His visit came as he prepared for a queen’s speech on Thursday in which he will pledge to bring his Brexit deal back to parliament before Christmas. It will also include a promise to enshrine increased health spending in law.
“I want the people of the north-east to know that we in the Conservative Party and I will repay your trust, and everything that we do, everything that I do as your prime minister, will be devoted to repaying that trust. And first of all, what are we going to do? We’re going to get Brexit done,” Johnson said.
“Our country has embarked on a wonderful adventure. We are going to recover our national self-confidence, our mojo and self-belief, and we are going to do things differently and better as a country. Because we can. I can imagine people’s pencils hovering over the ballot paper and wavering before coming down for us and the Conservatives, and I know that people may have been breaking the voting habits of generations to vote for us.”
“Nobody wanted this election in the run-up to Christmas, but what an incredible thing you have done. You have changed the political landscape. You have changed the Conservative Party for the better, and you’ve changed the future of our country for the better. I want to thank all the people of Sedgefield, of Bishop Auckland, of Stockton South, of Darlington – where my ancestors come from, it turns out – of North West Durham, Blyth Valley and Redcar,” he said.
Repaying trust means massive government investment in these areas. It is understood that the Conservative Party considered pledging more in infrastructure spending during the campaign, and the Conservative manifesto stated that its fiscal rules meant approximately £80 billion would be available in additional capital spending, not all of which has yet been allocated.
More of the money could be spent on new infrastructure as part of the first budget of Johnson’s new administration. The Conservative manifesto included a series of measures designed to boost provincial towns, including a towns fund and a “cultural capital” programme, as well as road and rail schemes.
But the problem is not simply spending money. The EU and previous Labour governments have spent to improve the situation in northern England, but with few significant results.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.