14 Dec 2019

Analysis: Triumph for Brexit Boris in the UK general election

3:22 pm on 14 December 2019

By David Townsend

Analysis - In the days before the UK General Election there was no clear view of the likely result. Some opinion pollsters suggested a big Conservative majority, a small one or possibly a hung Parliament.

The broadcaster's exit poll results projected on the outside of the BBC building in London.

The broadcaster's exit poll results projected on the outside of the BBC building in London. Photo: AFP

None indicated a Labour government.

It was the first December election in 100 years. The weather was generally as bad as could be expected but still about 65 percent of voters turned out. So how did they vote?

As the BBC's predictive exit poll was revealed yesterday, with the news that Boris Johnson and the Conservatives would gain the biggest Parliamentary Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher, the arguments began. Arguments about why he had won.

Was it just about Brexit or was it because Labour's leader Jeremy Corbyn was in the eyes of some right wing media "unelectable", even "toxic". Probably both.

Corbyn's inability or unwillingness to get to grips with the anti-semitism in the Labour Party and the criticism of the Chief Rabbi did not commend him to one traditional Labour voting group.

Boris Johnson himself is hardly an endearing character.

Islamaphobic is one charge: burqa wearers described as "letter boxes or bank robbers" etc. A deeply unsympathetic view of the world of those who have struggled with a decade of imposed Conservative austerity. Repeated presentation of alternative facts instead of the truth.

But despite dressing up in campaign photo ops as fishmonger, butcher, bulldozer driver, milkman and beer taster, he stuck to one main line of repeated attack.

"If you want to leave the EU by the end of January," vote for me and a clear Conservative majority. The manifesto to outline his party's policies was otherwise very thin. For former Labour voters who voted for him there wasn't much in there.

Britain's Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson speaks during a campaign event to celebrate the result of the General Election, in central London on December 13, 2019.

Britain's Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson speaks during a campaign event to celebrate the result of the general election, in central London. Photo: AFP

The Conservatives concentrated their drive in northern Labour seats. They were the seats that had voted solidly "leave" in the 2016 referendum.

It was a successful strategy. The swings recorded to the Conservatives there were sometimes well over the 10 percent mark.

The first Labour seat to fall was Blythe Valley, a former mining seat held by the party since 1950. It had voted leave in the referendum. Other working class seats registered similar swings and a swathe of them turned blue.

Jeremy Corbyn had tried to shift the emphasis onto matters which, in an election free of the fog of Brexit, and for any other Labour leader, might have proved winners.

Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn takes part in a press conference in London on November 27, 2019. -

Jeremy Corbyn has announced he will stand down from the Labour Leadership. Photo: AFP

The National Health Service, cash strapped public services, lack of affordable housing (shades of New Zealand's last election!) all of which are traditional Labour heartland policies. But dragged back by his own equivocation on European Union membership, voters chose the apparently simple Boris slogan.

Corbyn's Brexit policy was elect me as PM and I will re-negotiate Britain's EU exit deal and then present it for a further referendum to the British people. However, no real clue was given about what sort of deal and Corbyn himself said he was "neutral" on membership and how he personally would vote. The public decided that moving in neutral was not as good getting into forward gear with Boris.

There were significant cross political currents not registered in the exit poll.

In London, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU in the referendum, Labour and the Liberals gained. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) gained seats from both Labour and Conservative. It is now dominant.

The SNP campaigned to remain in the EU and for a second referendum on Scottish Independence. A constitutional collision with the Westminster Parliament and Scotland seems inevitable in future.

These shifts emphasise the fractured nature of Brexit politics.

Johnson has won the election. His majority, of whatever exact size, will ensure his Brexit deal will be approved in the coming weeks. The Labour Party will subject itself to agonies of recrimination and political bloodletting.

Jeremy Corbyn announced late into the night he would stand down from the Labour Leadership.

But the negotiated post Brexit trade deal with the EU - to be completed by the end of 2020 - remains as big an obstacle as anything encountered to date.

The final exit remains as far off as ever.

* David Townsend is an ex-UK Parliamentary Labour candidate, a former Labour ministerial speech writer and special adviser and contributor to The Guardian, The Independent and The Times.

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