Brexit is no longer in doubt. Thanks to Boris Johnson’s overwhelming election victory, and the huge majority in the House of Commons that the Conservative Party will enjoy over the next five years, Brexit has gone from possibility to inevitability. Britain is leaving the European Union. It’s happening.
It’s coming, though nobody, including Mr. Johnson’s government, which built its entire campaign around it, is entirely sure what “it” is. The precise shape, timing, nature and nuances of Brexit are still marked “TBA.” Mr. Johnson’s election slogan – “get Brexit done” – made things seem simpler than they are, and easier than they will be. Those three words hid more than they explained.
They also won the election, even though the Conservatives weren’t offering the best answer to the country’s Brexit fatigue, or an honest answer. But it was at least an answer. That’s more than the Labour Party put in the shop window.
“Enough, enough. Let’s get this done,” Mr. Johnson says at the end of an election ad parodying a scene from Love, Actually. The commercial was cringe-inducing yet engrossingly effective, rather like Mr. Johnson’s recent political career. Labour, in contrast, ran on a platform that was neither pro-Remain nor anti-Leave. Mr. Johnson told voters he would resolve the Brexit debate. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn was essentially telling voters he wouldn’t.
Mr. Johnson’s promise of a Hollywood ending is, of course, a fantasy. The sales pitch was disingenuous in the extreme. He didn’t level with the electorate about how challenging it’s going to be to negotiate an exit from the EU, and then re-negotiate a new EU trade relationship. He didn’t talk about costs the British economy will bear. He dodged the fact that Brexit is likely to push at least one nation to exit the United Kingdom. Stability in Northern Ireland is in jeopardy, and a second independence referendum in pro-EU Scotland is now a certainty.
The question is whether Mr. Johnson can use his five years of majority government to craft a Brexit deal that minimizes damage to the British economy, while mollifying the very real concerns of Northern Ireland and Scotland. That’s not impossible, but it’s going to be exceptionally challenging.
Mr. Johnson has also presided over a profound shift in British politics, one that will be studied by conservative parties elsewhere – including in Canada.
The Tories elected members in a slew of working-class seats that have gone solidly Labour for a century. Post-Brexit, they may vote Labour again in the next election, and for a century after. Brexit pushed some new voters to give the Conservatives a go, as Mr. Johnson recognized in his victory speech, but unless the party takes steps to win them over, a lot of Tory MPs will be one-term politicians.
These voters want Brexit, but they don’t want austerity or cuts to social programs. That’s true of a lot of Britons.
Polls showed that health care was the top election issue for voters, just behind Brexit. The Conservative platform recognized that. After “get Brexit done,” the top item in the Conservative manifesto was a promise to spend more on health care, hire 50,000 new nurses, fund 50 million more annual visits to family doctors and build 40 new hospitals.
Mr. Johnson pitched himself as a so-called one-nation conservative. It’s an ideology that says conservatives should back social reforms and welfare programs that benefit the poor and working class, and that unite all classes together in “one nation.” It’s a bit vague, rather like the Tory spending promises. But it’s seen as a contrast to the small government, neo-conservatism that has dominated the party since Margaret Thatcher.
Mr. Johnson’s pitch to pro-Brexit Labour voters was that they didn’t have to choose between Brexit and their desire for good social programs. He promised both.
The British health system, the National Health Service, or NHS, is the Labour Party’s jewel, yet some polls showed a slight majority of voters saying they trust the Conservatives when it comes to the NHS. Imagine discovering that more Canadians trust Andrew Scheer than Justin Trudeau on defending gay marriage.
Labour’s historical defeat was all the worse because of Mr. Corbyn’s poor leadership, and the lack of confidence he inspired. But it also says something about Mr. Johnson’s attempts to think beyond Brexit, and to reconsider what it means to be a conservative.