Like it or not, Brexit has won – now the real battle begins

Published by The i paper (16th December, 2019)

As soon as I heard the exit poll on election night, I felt strangely sanguine. I had lost, and so had millions of others who believe in building bridges rather than walls. Boris Johnson had won. And won big. The only surprise was in the scale of his success – and even this I had suspected after speaking to voters in South Yorkshire and Surrey. I heard rumbles of an electoral eruption when people from mining families told me they were voting for the party of Margaret Thatcher and the boss of a suburban tile shop – a Remain-voting, Liberal Democrat whose business was being crucified by Brexit – said he was backing the Tories to end uncertainty.

This seismic victory will transform our nation. The Tories, demonstrating again their ruthless focus on power, brilliantly exploited the divisions of Brexit they themselves created while their foes floundered. Ironically, David Cameron can claim to be godfather of their success after unleashing that wretched referendum. We will almost certainly now see hard Brexit, even if Johnson struggles to keep to his timetable. And this hollow prime minister, devoid of policy or principle beyond his own relentless ambition, ends up reshaping the political landscape like only two other leaders in my lifetime: Thatcher and Tony Blair.

They were both visionary political giants, although the nation still bears scars from their failures. Johnson says he will change our country for the better, but only time can judge this claim. He talks of unity, despite being the divisive apostle of Brexit chaos. And he insists he is a One Nation Conservative having fired up the flames of separatism. For have no doubt nationalism – an inherently dark and divisive creed – was the other big winner with his transformed Tory party dominating England and Wales, Nicola Sturgeon’s forces sweeping Scotland and the unionists in minority for the first time in Northern Ireland.

Jeremy Corbyn and his hard-left cult repulsed many voters. Instead of delivering their promised free-spending land of milk and honey, this puerile cabal of middle-class Marxists merely delivered chunks of working-class England into the hands of Johnson and doomed their country to a corrosive Brexit. They leave a shrivelled party confronting existential crisis with just 96 safe seats, mostly in three urban areas, compared with 258 for the Conservatives after a sixth consecutive rise in vote share. Yet Corbyn claims to have won the arguments, his selfish vanity impervious to electoral reality. The sooner he exits the stage, the better.

Nigel Farage has also shrunk into smirking irrelevance after the Tories turned right. Broadcasters that book him with tedious regularity should note the Greens won 223,394 more votes than his vanity party. We saw again how our anachronistic electoral system bolsters the big parties and impedes smaller rivals. The Liberal Democrats saw a substantial jump in vote share but ended up losing their leader and with one less seat than last time. Tory and Labour politicians who switched sides rather than endorse extremism were defeated, showing there is no reward for bravery in our brutal tribal system.

There is no point now pursuing pointless battles: Britain is, sadly, going to break from Brussels and the beauty of free movement. This heated debate that distorted politics, divided citizens and demeaned the country will cool once we leave the European Union, even if a long tussle lies ahead over future trading relationships. How telling that Johnson’s core argument in his campaign was that Brexit had become a pesky encumbrance, distracting Westminster from more crucial matters. Yet the flip side to his victory is, hopefully, a return to more normal politics, an end to parliamentary paralysis and focus on other issues.

This is where things become interesting. Johnson remains so enigmatic we do not even know his exact number of children, let alone his true place on the political spectrum. The only certainty is he cannot be trusted. Now he must stop pandering to the past, pick up some policies and start to look forward. He will define himself through decisions in power – and do this as he seeks to retain his new electoral coalition, possibly in face of a Labour party returning to its senses. He has to satisfy his new socially conservative, working class Tory voters in the north while fending off Liberal Democrats who, despite stumbles and self-imposed setbacks, closed the gap significantly in many southern seats by harnessing cultural identity concerns.

Johnson will most likely be socially liberal, crudely populist on race and migration, regressive on criminal justice, fiscally incontinent for a Tory and interventionist. There will be headline-grabbing infrastructure projects – hopefully better than the costly garden bridge fiasco during his reign as mayor – along with stunts and Trump-style assaults on the media. But when it comes to public services will he simply spray around money to banish memories of austerity or knuckle down to fix the flaws in universal credit, sort out the social care catastrophe, abolish the bedroom tax, salvage social housing, support local authorities, end abusive detention of people with autism and tackle the terrible mental health crisis?

Most fascinating is the demonic figure of Dominic Cummings lurking in Downing Street. Here is the puppet master behind the prime minister. For all his arrogance and verbosity, there is some merit in his analysis of systemic government failings and stifling establishment complacency. He is also right to seek more state spending on research and greater focus on education. But will he end up flouncing off in fury, frustrated by bureaucratic inertia and political caution, like previous maverick advisers?

This pair of disruptive characters – the blustering showman and his shadowy aide – pulled off a referendum victory against the odds. Like it or not, they have won their fight to transform politics. The battle to shape post-Brexit Britain, however, has just begun.

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