Boris Johnson has won the war. He now has the largest Conservative parliamentary majority since Thatcher. Labour has been decimated in their heartlands. Brexit will finally happen on 31 January 2020.
But he now faces a truly monstrous task: winning the peace. And the challenge to represent people who have entrusted their votes to the Tories for the first time should not be underestimated.
The rejection of Labour is of both historic proportions and symbolic importance. Millions in the north and Midlands turned out to vote for Brexit and Boris – but more so, they voted against a Labour party more concerned with Trotskyist economic theories and elite cultural concerns than everyday issues.
The received wisdom, from many of the same political commentators who have got practically everything wrong in recent years, is that the Tories will now become an effectively left-wing party on economics: ratcheting up public spending and state intervention. Investing in public services, infrastructure and training is necessary in deprived areas – and made more viable by revenue coming in after a post-Brexit economic boom.
But spending for the sake of spending in deprived areas will not create a thriving private sector with entrepreneurial economies. Tony Blair tried big spending in deprived areas during his time in office – and it did little to create a sense of local vitality. What’s good and what’s bad policy does not simply change on the whims of electoral arithmetic. Boris understands this well, having spent the last six weeks rejecting Corbyn’s socialism and talking up a strong economy.
He did not follow Theresa May’s lead in nanny statism, social justice and “reforming capitalism”. His manifesto did not go out of its way to reject the “libertarian right” and emphasise “the good that government can do”, like May’s did in 2017. Boris campaigned for lower taxes for the worst off, a global Britain underpinned by free trade agreements, a skilled migration programme and liberalised free ports.
To secure the new coalition of voters the Tories must be the party of opportunity, aspiration and entrepreneurship. They must adopt policies that will reboot Britain’s economy and ensure that prosperity is widely felt. Just as Thatcher locked in the voters of Essex for generations with a booming economy and a narrative of getting on and getting up, Boris must do the same for the rest of the country.
Despite some rhetoric to the contrary, Labour won the most deprived parts of the country. Lord Ashcroft found that the Conservatives did best among C1 (junior managerial, administrative, professional occupations) and C2 (skilled manual occupations) voters, and relatively worse among the lowest income DE (lowest skilled and unemployed) voters. In other words, the Tories won the lower-middle and upper-working class vote – what a Marxist might dismissively call the “petite bourgeoisie”.
If all the new Tory voters wanted was more from the state and more lecturing on how to live their lives, they would have voted for Labour. These voters want a hand up, not a handout. If you give people things and make them reliant upon the state then next time they will vote for those who will give them more things.
There is always hope that you can simply spend your way to prosperity with shiny things, but you have to be smarter than that. A short-run cash injection does not make for a thriving local economy.
The Detroit People Mover offers a cautionary tale. The 2.94-mile monorail was constructed in the hope of regenerating struggling downtown Detroit. It has been a costly disaster: it has just 4,300 daily users and requires $12 million annually in city and state subsidies. It has been described as “a rich folks’ rollercoaster”. The same could be said for HS2, which will largely benefit businessman getting to London quicker rather than local economies.
We need infrastructure, services and tax cuts to enable areas to grow stronger. It’s not the cities versus the towns and countryside, it’s about making them work together in a symbiotic way.
Opportunity can be spread by linking towns in the north and Midlands to the growth engines of Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds with good train and bus links. An investment boom can be achieved by abolishing the factory tax – the inability to immediately write off business spending on factories and machinery. And prosperity can be spread by cutting crippling red tape that is holding back small business.
While the precise circumstances of 12 December will never be repeated, the unchaining of substantial parts of the north and Midlands from Labour dominance represents a huge political earthquake. It’s now time to solidify the stonking Tory majority with policies that will boost the entire country.