David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
By some distance, the most important aspect of the elections of 6 May is Scotland but as the final result here is still emerging, let us look at England. And the conclusion here has to be that these are stunningly good results for Boris Johnson and the Conservatives.
Before drawing any conclusions about what this all means, there are three qualifications that need to be made.
First, the success of the Covid vaccination process has undoubtedly helped the Government. There is optimism that we are emerging from this nightmare and gratitude to the Government in getting the jabs done. Labour has done relatively well in Wales and the SNP is, at the very least, maintaining its position which supports the contention that now is a good time to be an incumbent. However, there are additional factors that favour Johnson.
It was the UK Government that made the important decisions on procurement. And for some voters, the success compared to the EU validates Brexit (for what it is worth, I think we would have pursued our own vaccination procurement policy had we still been full members, but the important point here is that this is not the view of much of the electorate). Even though Brexit has been demonstrably disruptive for trade, the vaccine roll-out shifted public opinion marginally in favour of it.
Second, the Hartlepool success can, in part, be explained by the collapse of the Brexit Party vote. Writing before the result, James Johnson pointed out that the Brexit Party vote in Hartlepool was exceptionally high and that a Conservative win “would not be a political earthquake, but a seat playing catch-up with what already happened in 2019″ All true, but when the votes were counted, it was not just a win but a landslide.
Third, a further note of caution is that there are immense challenges for the Government ahead. The public finances have taken a battering and the current spending plans look very tight. Big promises have been made on “levelling up” without much of a plan as to how to do it (although the appointment of the impressive Neil O’Brien is encouraging). Brexit is causing disruption and that will become more visible, whilst the situation in Northern Ireland is unstable. Some of the allegations made against the Prime Minister have the capacity to do damage, even if voters do not seem to care for the moment. And there is Scotland.
Things can still go wrong for the Government and the Prime Minister, but they are going well at the moment in terms of political support, and not just because of short-term factors.
A familiar topic in these columns is how British politics is realigning not along class or economic lines but on culture and education. It is not a process I like – it results in polarisation and bitterness, sub-optimal economic policies and leaves some of us politically homeless – but it appears inevitable.
The results have been consistent with that realignment. The Conservative performance was much improved on 2016 and 2017 in Leave areas whilst being broadly the same in Remain areas.
It also leaves the re-fashioned Conservatives in a dominant position, essentially having a monopoly on one side of the debate (as long as no space is given for a Faragiste insurgency), whilst the other side is split between Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Greens (plus the SNP and Plaid Cymru in Scotland and Wales). The Conservative vote is also better distributed, with their opponents’ votes piling up huge majorities in the cities.
(By the way, finding the correct vocabulary here is tricky. It is not a matter of “left” versus “right”; “leave” and “remain” worked quite well but is now outdated; “populist”, “authoritarian” or “nationalist” sounds pejorative; “social conservative” does not really reflect Boris Johnson’s approach to life; “culturally conservative” is better but not perfect. A consensus on neutral terms to describe the two sides of the new political divide would be a small step forward, at least for those of us writing articles such as this.)
This new political landscape leaves the Conservative Party with quite a straightforward task. Do enough to keep its new Red Wall voters happy so they don’t go back to Labour (or whatever party Nigel Farage is leading at any particular moment) whilst not doing so much that it results in the loss of what remains of its relatively liberal base in the south.
This task is helped considerably by the inability of the Labour Party to pursue ruthlessly either flank of the Conservative support. Go for the Red Wallers and it would upset its metropolitan, liberal supporters; go for a wide, liberal coalition and it ceases to be a working class party and further elements of the Red Wall could fall.
In a somewhat tentative way, Keir Starmer has tried to recover the Red Wall by emphasising that (unlike his predecessor) he doesn’t actively hate the country. But that obviously was not enough for the people of Hartlepool. His hope has been that normal, class-based politics would return and that he could paint the Government as “the same old Tories”. He looks set to be disappointed on both fronts.
The Greens look to be having a good set of elections and could be that unashamedly liberal, middle class party but (unlike in Germany) are positioned on the economic far-left. As such, they are a threat to Labour (quite possibly a substantial one) but not to the Conservatives.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have an opportunity which they look determined to squander. At the last general election, the Conservatives still received the support of plenty of Brexit-sceptic voters who had no great affection for Boris Johnson but feared Corbyn and saw a Conservative vote as the only way of stopping him. These voters – quite socially liberal but not radical and quite economically conservative (they are the ones who will have to pay the cost of “levelling up”) – could be a fruitful source of votes for the Lib Dems if they were so minded to pursue them. Instead, traumatised by the experience of coalition, they have fallen back into a comfort zone of being a centre-left “none of the above” party.
Boris Johnson is a fortunate general. The realignment of British politics has enabled him to capture the Red Wall and, on the evidence of these results, consolidate his gains and prepare for a further advance. There is a long term retreat in London (Shaun Bailey has done better than expected but there were 48 Conservative MPs elected in London in 1992, 21 now and three to eight of those are at risk at the next general election) but he can bear such casualties. There is no sustained and effective attack on any Blue Wall which he has been able to leave only lightly defended.
At some point, politics will find a new equilibrium. The Conservative Party’s dominance relies heavily on white voters who left school at 16 and were born before 1960. Such voters will make up a declining proportion of the electorate. But unless their opponents adjust to the new alignment in English politics, the Conservatives are right to be optimistic for their prospects throughout the 2020s.