Boris Johnson breaks the Red Wall

Boris Johnson breaks the Red Wall

December 2019 | Politics

The triumphant Prime Minister has an opportunity to reshape British politics, but first he must deliver a Brexit that works for first-time Conservative voters.

After a difficult campaign, the voters delivered the expected result. Boris Johnson now has a Commons majority of 80 and with it the numbers to pass the withdrawal bill as he originally drafted it. Gone are the compromises on workers rights, the environment and transition period renewal conceded at the end of the previous Parliament. Thus Brexit is now confirmed for the 31st January, but that does not mean the end of the withdrawal process. There is still the final trade deal to negotiate in a timescale that few people outside of London believe is possible.

It is likely that the UK Government are under estimating the difficulties in negotiating a trade deal with the EU. Brexit is a project intended to repatriate powers over trade and regulations to Westminster giving the UK power to strike trade deals with the rest of the world by reducing trading standards and business regulations in return for enhanced market access. Many of the leading Brexiteers believe in a low tax, low regulation British economy that can attract inward investment by undercutting the EU. In theory that could work but there is absolutely no incentive for the EU to support such a vision.

That's not to say that a trade deal allowing regulatory divergence is impossible, just that it will take more than a year to negotiate. Boris is hoping to use the threat of No Deal at the end of December 2020 to accelerate talks, but the complexity is higher and brinkmanship is less likely to work than last time. There is less at stake in this next round of negotiations. If no trade deal can be agreed then there will be an impact on UK based manufacturers, who will face strict non tariff barriers. For that reason, a deal of some description is inevitable because to do otherwise would kill the other great project of the Boris Johnson Administration.

New Heartlands

It is not gone unnoticed that the Tories won their majority due to massive swings in the North of England. Keeping the votes of these Northern working class voters is the overriding political priority for the Conservative party. Given that middle class areas of the South are trending away from the Tories, they have no choice if they want to keep their majority. The red wall constituencies they gained two weeks ago have been trending towards them for 20 years, but killing manufacturing could see them switch back to Labour. These areas are far more left wing in economic terms than the Tories traditional heartlands and the government's more statist economic prospectus reflects this. If the ERG don't go along with this trend, they will be sidelined sooner rather than later.

A lot will become clearer in February when Boris carries out his post Brexit reshuffle. There are rumours it will see significant changes with many ERGers being replaced by a younger generation of MPs. That does not mean that the government will suddenly switch to supporting close regulatory alignment with the EU. Boris's support for the Brexit cause is based as much on sovereignty concerns and a hatred of regulation as it is on personal ambition. It does mean that he will be willing to agree to an interim trade deal that punts the difficult decisions to another day. He has 5 years until the next election after all.

New Opposition

In the meantime the main opposition to whatever form of Brexit that the government ends up delivering will come from the Lords. In a Commons context the opposition are now irrelevant. That suits Boris perfectly, he is not a politician open to scrutiny. For now, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are a total irrelevance both in Westminster and among the general public. This situation is unlikely to change for several years. In the interim both parties need to elect new leaders but aren't in any rush to do it.

Jeremy Corbyn has announced that he will be resigning as Labour leader, but has given no indication of when he will depart. In the meantime there is no shortage of candidates to replace him. The favourite is the underwhelming Rebecca Long-Bailey, a protégé of shadow chancellor John McDonnell. Other declared candidates include Emily Thornberry, Lisa Nandy, Kier Starmer and Clive Lewis. Not all those will make the cut due to the arcane nominations process which requires candidates to gain the support of of trade unions or 5% of constituency parties just to make the ballot.

The rush to declare leadership candidates has overshadowed Labour's election post-mortem, a process which has devolved into a series of rows about Brexit policy and the relative power of London and the North within the party. One defeated shadow cabinet member even blamed Tony Blair for the election loss. Labour's problem extends far beyond specific leaders though. Blair would be unable to win elections as Labour leader in 2019. The Centre ground has moved significantly leftwards since he left office. However, one trend that started during his tenure is causing the party serious problems.

New Realities

Labour was founded to represent the working classes and the party still sees itself in those terms. The trouble is that the modern working classes don't share that perception. The Conservatives actually won a higher share of the vote among skilled manual workers than among the managerial classes. The London dominated Labour Party has spent the last two decades worrying about the problems of the poor in big cities rather than the working classes in small towns. Voters have noticed. The modern Labour Party is now as alien to the North as the Tories.

Many traditional Labour supporting communities feel as they have been ignored by the party founded to represent them, and have given the Tories a chance to do a better job than the previous incumbents. Brexit made this possible by providing a cause which unites Conservative concerns about nationalism and sovereignty with Working Class concerns about immigration and cultural change. The alliance between these two groups is not yet a permanent one, but Labour no longer have an automatic right to the votes of industrial and post-industrial communities. If the Tories deliver for their new voters then they will build substantial majorities in Labour's traditional heartlands. If they don't, then Labour have another chance, but they need to win find a new way to communicate with these voters and fast. Nigel Farage is waiting on the wings with his new Brexit Party, soon to be rebranded as the Reform Party.

Written by Alan Chatfield