Reason for hope: Lose the battle, win the war

Everyone in the media seems to talk about the Tory “landslide”, the re-alignment of the political landscape, and the huge mandate Johnson has now. What — puzzlingly to me – seems to be completely overlooked is that on a night where Labour lost big (-7.8%), the Tories only gained a fairly small amount (+1.2%) of the vote. Some of it went to the Brexit party (+2%), the Greens (+1.1) and the SNP (+0.8%), but most actually to the LibDems (+4.2)% (source). Bizarrely, this swing gave the SNP 14 extra seats, while Brexit party and Greens got nothing and the LibDems actually lost a seat compared to 2017. In any case, the vote has hardly dramatically shifted the country to the right. The vote has only been re-allocated – moved around – although with admittedly dramatic effects in parliament. And yes, the number of MPs is what ultimately matters – but only for the next five years.

The Tory victory was built on two main factors: 1. Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity and 2. the desire to “get Brexit done”. The first factor will be gone by the next election and Labour will find it difficult to replace Corbyn with someone as toxic as him (though they may very well try, it seems). The second factor will in all likelihood have turned from an asset into a liability by the time the next election rolls along. It is in the nature of Brexit that most Brexit supporters will be disappointed when it actually happens. And Johnson’s promises for NHS, schools and police do not square well with Brexit either. For example, you cannot get a good trade deal with the EU while significantly diverging on regulations and keeping full control of the fishing waters. You cannot do a hard Brexit and keep the unemployment rate at 3.8%, let alone revive Northern England and spend generously on everything. You cannot at the same time visibly reduce immigration and recruit 50.000 nurses. Plus the issue of climate change – willfully ignored by the Tories during the campaign – is not something that will just fade into the background again.

So the odds are very good that by 2024 there will be enough disappointment in the Lab-to-Con constituencies for them to swing back in huge numbers. The question is will the Tories be able to retreat to their heartlands? While they did not lose much in the South this time, seats that used to have five-digit majorities are now down to 2000-3000 and very much in play for LibDems and Labour in 2024. A lot will depend on which swing voters are more likely to return home and it seems to me that it is much easier for a moderate Tory to stay a LibDem than for a Labour-Leaver to stay a Tory.

Therefore, this election may in the end turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the Conservatives. Combine a halfway decent Labour leader with less than stellar five years of Boris Johnson and the Tories could see a wipe-out like Labour is experiencing right now – with the difference that the swing voters won’t be particularly conflicted about deserting them.

This is by no means a given, of course. The Conservatives will most certainly try to shift blame for everything that goes sideways onto the usual suspects. For example, expect a lot of EU bashing in early summer when Johnson will have to ask for an extension to the transition period. It will be vital at that point to remind everyone that we were supposed to “hold all the cards in the negotiations”. The ability of the Tories and their allies in the press to create positive narratives must not be underestimated. But there is hope it will not be enough this time because even the people who voted for Johnson in this election do not seem to trust him one inch.

So while things are certainly looking bleak at the moment, the fact that the Brexiters and populists have nowhere left to hide now may actually turn out to have been the best possible outcome in the long run.