North Shropshire By-ElectionBritain is Turning Against the Conservatives’ Populist Politics
Having portrayed itself as helping voters overthrow a hated established order, Boris Johnson’s Government has now become the epitome of everything those same voters dislike, says Adam Bienkov
One Liberal Democrat MP told Byline Times this week that there was a chance the party would “romp it” in North Shropshire, and romp it it most certainly did.
In the end, Helen Morgan took the previously safe, Leave-voting Conservative seat on a huge 34% swing after what has been the worst few weeks of Boris Johnson’s premiership.
The result poses an existential threat to the Prime Minister’s leadership. Johnson’s relationship with his party has always been a transactional one. As long as he is viewed to be a winner, he will remain leader. As soon as it becomes clear that he is not, he will be disposed of.
However, the result goes much deeper than Johnson and is indicative of a party and a political movement that has now lost its way.
In order to work out how we got to this point, we need to go back to the 2016 EU Referendum.
The vote in 2016 revealed a defining fissure in British politics between a younger more liberal, Remain-voting urban class of voters and an older, more socially conservative Leave-voting class.
After David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister, the Conservatives became convinced that its future lay in uniting this latter group of voters behind a new populist-nationalist agenda.
For a while it didn’t work. Theresa May’s ham-fisted attempt to lead the populist charge against Labour ran into the sand as she failed to convince the public that “Brexit means Brexit”.
Yet, when Boris Johnson took over – with his promise to “Get Brexit done” – everything appeared to fall into place. Socially conservative voters in Labour-held seats in the north of England united with more traditional Conservative voters to deliver the Conservatives a landslide majority.
But, as both the North Shropshire by-election and the Chesham and Amersham by-election earlier this year have shown, Johnson’s castle increasingly looks like it has been built on sand.
In both instances, Lib Dem canvassers reported to Byline Times that lifelong Conservative voters seemed to be quickly running out of reasons to vote for the party after Brexit.
“If you ask what is [the Conservatives’] positive vision for the country – in as much as there is one – it is one about helping the ‘Red Wall’,” one senior Lib Dem said.
“Now, obviously, we could debate how sincere that really is, but at least if you’re in a Red Wall area you do hear Conservatives saying something about your future. But if you’re not in a Red Wall area, then they’ve got very little to say.”
Lib Dem campaigners reported that Brexit was hardly mentioned on the doorstep in North Shropshire, with voters instead reporting a more general malaise with the Government and Johnson’s party.
In particular, Johnson’s dire handling of the scandal of the Downing Street Christmas parties held last year while Coronavirus restrictions were in place – so-called ‘partygate’ – was raised repeatedly by voters, many of whom appeared to have developed a visceral dislike of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.
While in 2019 the Conservative Party prospered by portraying itself as helping voters overthrow a hated established order, it has now become the epitome of everything those same voters dislike.
These contradictions in the Brexit project were always inherently unstable. It never made sense that an Eton-educated Telegraph columnist should lead the charge against the established order from the safety of his £3 million Islington townhouse.
However, for a while it worked. For a while, Johnson appeared to be achieving the impossible by re-writing British politics in his own image. But, after last night’s result, the very foundations of the Conservative Party’s entire political project risk crumbling.
For the first time, the Conservative Party’s brand of populist politics appears to have run into the unstoppable fact that it is no longer popular.