The formula for Conservative election victories in modern times has been to start with the southern middle classes, and then work northwards (geographically) and downwards (demographically). Under this formula, the Party would often hold, say, Tynemouth. It might occasionally win Darlington, for example – as it did in the first great Thatcher landslide of 1983. It would never stand an earthly in Blyth Valley. We choose an example from the North East, but there are parallels elsewhere.
Some Tories have long yearned to take a different course entirely. They want an appeal based on national sovereignty, immigration control, and market economics: a Powellite formula rather than a Heathite one, as it were – an appeal aimed fairly and squarely at the working class. Margaret Thatcher’s pitch during the 1980s, assisted by the split on the Left, was not entirely like either, based as it was on salvaging the economy, winning the Falklands War, beating Arthur Scargill and spreading wider home and share ownership.
Every Conservative leader since Thatcher has lived under her shadow. First John Major, who lost her three figure majority in 1992. Then the William Hague / Iain Duncan Smith / Michael Howard triptych, none of whom succeeded in becoming Prime Minister at all. Then David Cameron, who failed to win outright in 2010, and only did so in a narrow margin in 2015. Theresa May went backwards.
As we write, Johnson has won the biggest Conservative majority since 1987 – with 365 MPs, 66 of them new, and 44 per cent of the vote: a majority of 78. That’s a bigger one than Tony Blair achieved in 2005, and the same share as Thatcher gained in 1979 – her highest. Some would say that only a three figure majority constitutes a landslide, but this result is certainly an overwhelming win: the Tories’ biggest in over 40 years.
The statisticians and psephologists will pore over the results, with some doubtless claiming that the story of the night wasn’t so much Johnson doing well as Jeremy Corbyn doing abysmally. And the Prime Minister certainly seems to have done well enough in the South East. But he prospered simultaneously outside it, among the relatively deprived voters that first Nick Timothy (unsuccessfully) and now Dominic Cummings (successfully) have targetted.
Consider three seats. First, Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s former constituency. Next, Bolsover, until yesterday Denis Skinner’s. Finally, Blythe Valley, as above. The Conservatives won all three. We wrote when Johnson removed the whip from 21 Tory MP that the move heralded “the end of the Conservative Party as we have known it”. And so it did: the new Tory Parliamentary Party will be more northern, less posh – and more pro-Brexit.
Johnson therefore becomes the first Conservative leader since Thatcher to shake off her shadow. He is in one sense more Powellite and more Thatcherite than either: after all, he has delivered a victory based fairly and squarely on national self-government. But his immigration posture is ambiguous (Migration Watch is not happy), and his economic prospectus is unThatcherite, unPowellite.
For although Johnson has praised capitalism publicly, it’s a word that covers a multitude of approaches. His “boosterism” appears to be based on the Cummings-esque trilogy of more NHS cash, an Australian-style points-based immigration system and tax cuts for lower paid workers. Plus more police – and a mass of eye-grabbing infrastructure projects. No wonder he has described himself as a “Brexity Hezza”.
Michael Heseltine himself bridles at any comparison with his former successor in Henley. But Johnson knew what he was doing when he drew the parallel. The Conservative Parliamentary Party, now shorn of many of his fiercest critics, such as Philip Hammond and David Gauke and Rory Stewart, can be shaped in his image: romantic, impulsive, humorous, inconsistent, wily. The Prime Minister is indeed “the greased albino piglet“.
Our columnist James Frayne has been a consistent champion of the Tory march northwards: so much so that we have christened his fortnightly article “Far from Notting Hill”. It is worth noting that Frayne – whose wife Rachel Wolf, another ConHome columnist, co-wrote Johnson’s manifesto – is bullish about tax cuts: some, anyway. “They want government to help businesses…,because they’re worried about the state of the economy,” he wrote recently.
The Blyth Valley and Sedgefield and Bolsover and other results may have been less an endorsement of Johnson than a rejection of Corbyn. But would-be Conservative MPs are now in them and at the next election will have the advantage of incumbency: they can make the case for their leader. Rather as Lee Rowley, say, has done in North-East Derbyshire. Last time, it was a first-time Tory win. Now, he has a five figure majority.
We know about the rows to come over Brexit policy and Scottish independence. We understand that the DUP will be disappointed with yesterday’s results and that the EU will be pleased – since what it wants above all is someone it feels it can negotiate with, and who has a Parliamentary majority at his back. But what will Boosterism have to say about the size of the state? Or tax cuts for better-off workers – such as those that Johnson promised during the Conservative leadership election? Or the reform of public services?
Thatcher and then later Tony Blair believed in spending plus reform. It is clear that Johnson believes in the former. (And that Sajid Javid, his Chancellor, will play along.) But it isn’t at all apparent that he has very much time at all for voter-antagonising reform of the public services: schools, hospitals, the police. We are about to find out. So is Javid. As we will about those aspects of the Conservative manifesto which this site highlighted last week – such as constitutional and political reform.
Johnson has the opportunity to pursue two different but related courses as he plans his Cabinet shuffle, Brexit – and a budget. One is securing his majority: reforming boundaries, cleaning up voter fraud, using patronage, taking control of the government machine. The other is extending it by reaching out from a position of strength to people and groups who didn’t vote for him: Nigel Farage, Muslims, Heseltine himself, students, Ulster Unionists, Liverpool, academics – a variegated social galere. He has made both possible. This is a staggering personal triumph.