After the 1992 General Election, the fourth consecutive Conservative victory, the Times, in its wonderful statistical summary, described the Conservatives as “the natural Party of Government” and Labour as “the natural Party of Opposition”. Despite a poor economic outlook and 13 years of Government, John Major surprised the polls and most pundits by coming home victorious.
In the aftermath, there were those who believed somehow the electoral laws had been overcome and the Conservatives could and indeed would never lose power.
Well, we all know how accurate that was.
As a semi-detached observer of the recent General Election, I was struck by how little anyone mentioned the Government’s record – I barely heard Theresa May or even David Cameron’s name spoken and little or nothing of what the Conservatives had achieved in Government since 2015 let alone 2010. You would have been forgiven for thinking Boris Johnson was the leader of an insurgent opposition campaigning against a weak incumbent Government which seemed to have no voice in its defence.
Incredibly, after nearly a decade in Government, Boris Johnson was able to convince a great many voters he led a “new” Conservative Party and was determined to sweep away the drift and decay of the previous, er, Conservative Government. Tony Blair, whose voice I hear ever more loudly when I hear Boris Johnson, succeeded in re-inventing Labour in Opposition as a non-socialist party of the centre or centre-left for whom many millions of disillusioned Conservatives could vote.
Boris’s achievement has been somewhat different – he has re-invented the Conservative voting coalition around three mutually over-lapping groups. First, the 75% of current LEAVE voters (totalling 36% of the total electorate assuming the current split is 52-48 for REMAIN). Second, the one sixth of REMAIN voters so between 8 and 9% of the electorate – that group can be subdivided into two:
First are the REMAIN voters who disagree with the 2016 Referendum result but believe it needs to be enacted and second those who may disagree with the 2016 Referendum result but were far more scared of a Corbyn Government. These three groups gave the Conservatives their 44-45% vote share.
The campaign made no difference – once Johnson had sealed the Conservative leadership election thanks to the ComRes poll published on June 11th the rest was inevitable. He was able to eliminate the existential threat of the Brexit Party and harnessed the above factions into a clear majority.
All else was obfuscation.
The 2020s (well, at least the first half) belong to the Conservatives and by 2024 they will have been in power for 14 years. History tells us nothing lasts forever and physics tells us what goes up must eventually come down so the Conservative vote share, which has risen inexorably from its 1997-2001 nadir back to levels surpassing the Thatcher high water marks of the 1980s, will one day fall back.
Yet will that “fall” be a brief hiatus or a meaningful change in voting patterns? Many seem to assume once Brexit has been delivered or “done” to use the vernacular, everyone will go back to old allegiances assuming nothing had ever happened. I’m less convinced.
It could be that while the apparent lack of a credible alternative continues, the Conservatives, rather like the Mexican PRI or the LDP in Japan, will continue to be in Government, periodically changing its leader and direction while retaining the reins of Government. After all, who would have conceived after her third successive election victory that Margaret Thatcher would be ousted by her own MPs but that even with that shattering event, the Conservatives would win another election and remain in power for another six and a half years?
Perhaps such a fate will befall Johnson – one thing is clear, the moment he looks like a loser his days will be numbered especially if A.N Other, S.O Else or Rishi Sunak start looking like winners.
How then does the Conservative giant get toppled? One thought is if you are going to campaign against Johnson you have to re-discover the art of being happy. Miserable realism butters no parsnips against unyielding optimism – Johnson won the UK in 2019 the same way he won London in 2008 – by being relentlessly upbeat and offering a positive message for people tired of downbeat negativity.
Sometimes it’s the message but more often it’s the messenger. Making someone feel happy and good about themselves and their country is far more effective than telling an unvarnished negative truth.
Indeed, just telling someone “it’s going to be all right” is a pretty strong message. “Get Brexit Done” resonated simply because it offered an end to deadlock and drift. As a message it leaves far more questions than answers but tired and frustrated people are always willing to take a leap of faith even if they know not where it will take them.