British prime ministers have a choice - though less of a choice than they used to - about when to hold a general election. But the decision to call an election before the end of the five-year term is always a gamble. Theresa May’s decision to hold an election in June, 2017, turned out to be a disaster. She lost the slim overall majority her Conservative Party had enjoyed in the House of Commons and was unable to persuade enough MPs to approve her Brexit deal with Brussels. Boris Johnson’s gamble, on the other hand, paid off handsomely, even though the gamble was in some respects greater.
He called the first winter election for almost 100 years, even though bad weather and dark evenings could have reduced the turnout (it didn’t). Despite well-known character flaws, including a chaotic personal life and questions about his integrity and trustworthiness, he chose to front the campaign himself, almost in the manner of a US presidential election. And he made Brexit almost the only issue, with voters widely ridiculing his simplistic slogan: “Get Brexit done". He also risked alienating Conservative voters who wanted to stay in the EU by suspending the party membership of MPs who opposed his renegotiated Brexit deal. This meant they were unable to stand for re-election as Conservatives, so that every Conservative candidate was pro-Brexit.
Johnson’s reward was a House of Commons majority of 78 - the largest majority for any governing party since Tony Blair’s second election victory in 2001, ending a decade of hung, or nearly-hung parliaments. The size of his majority means that it is now certain that the UK will cease to be a member of the European Union before the end of January 2020, and that Johnson will have more freedom of manoeuvre, both in negotiating the practicalities with Brussels before and after 31 January, and thereafter when he turns to domestic policy than any Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher.
In effect, Thursday’s vote turned out to be a second Brexit referendum by other means. Johnson owed his victory to the many people, especially in the north of England, who had voted Leave in the 2016 referendum and were frustrated that, although Leave won, Brexit had not yet happened. Towns and cities that had voted Labour for many decades switched their allegiance to the Conservatives to “get Brexit done”. In London and the south-east of England, in contrast, where Labour voters had generally favoured Remain in the referendum, there was no such mass defection to the Conservatives. But the Remain vote was weakened by being split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
It could be said that in this election Leave won for a second time, more convincingly than in 2016, when the referendum result was 52-48 per cent, and more effectively, because the referendum result and the parliamentary majority are now aligned behind Brexit. When the new Parliament assembles, probably late next week, the three-year post-referendum stalemate will be at an end.
Not only that, but all other parties - except the Scottish Nationalists who increased their dominance in Scotland - are considerably weakened. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has launched a review of party policy and says he will not fight another election. The leaders of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats and the pro-Brexit Northern Ireland DUP whose support Theresa May had relied upon both lost their seats.
The fact that there is now a relatively large number of constituencies in the industrial north of England that will be represented in Parliament by Conservative MPs also raises the question of whether these votes were a one-off - whether people just “lent” their votes to the Conservaties to ensure that the UK left the EU, or whether this could be part of some larger shift.
This was a question Boris Johnson himself raised almost as soon as the election result became clear. But it was noticeable that he immediately changed his language to talk about “one-nation conservativism” - that is, an inclusive brand of Conservatism, as opposed to government by and for the privileged, which is how the Conservative Party has often been seen in recent years. He also suggested that the party would have to change to accommodate its new - more northern and working class - voters.
In fact, it can be argued that Johnson was elected and governed as a one-nation Conservative during his two terms as Mayor of London, when he presided over some of the same policies that he promised in his manifesto for this election: more police on the streets, a role for the public, as well as the private, sector, tolerance across ethnic and religious divides, and an openness to new infrastructure projects. London voters, as was shown again by this week’s election results, lean to the left. Johnson is a rare politician who appeals across the party divide. He pulled off the same trick this week on the national scale.
Where that leaves foreign policy is a so-far open question. There appears to be some discussion in government circles about how far policy should be reorientated away from Europe and towards the rest of the world. Topics include how far the potential for increased trade should outweigh other considerations, whether naval power should be boosted in view of the rise of China, and how far the Commonwealth and international organisations, such as the UN, should be seen as forums for the UK to exploit existing connections.
With general agreement that the UK will need all the friends it can muster, might it even look for a rapprochement with Russia. Johnson himself breathed hot and cold on that subject in his brief stint as Foreign Secretary, which included the time of the Salisbury poisonings. In his journalistic writing, Johnson was more of a “realist” on foreign policy than an ideologue. How much attention he will be able to devote to a post-Brexit role for the UK in the wider world, however, must be doubtful, given the urgency of settling the terms for a new relationship with the EU and the divisions that need to be addressed at home.