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When Boris Johnson won the 2019 General Election

Summary:
In November, many people were shocked. How could someone who had been free with racist slurs towards many minority groups, who had arranged for an opponent to be beaten up, who had been sacked twice for lying and yet had continued to lie frequently, who had been the worst foreign secretary in decades, and who had wasted a lot of public money on blunders as Mayor of London go on to win a General Election? That he became Tory leader in the previous July could easily be explained, given the nature of his electorate then, but winning a General Election was something else. He had been elected as leader in part because the party saw him as the only person who could prevent Nigel Farage taking many votes away from the party. Essential to Johnson’s strategy to starve Farage of votes was to follow

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in November, many people were shocked. How could someone who had been free with racist slurs towards many minority groups, who had arranged for an opponent to be beaten up, who had been sacked twice for lying and yet had continued to lie frequently, who had been the worst foreign secretary in decades, and who had wasted a lot of public money on blunders as Mayor of London go on to win a General Election? That he became Tory leader in the previous July could easily be explained, given the nature of his electorate then, but winning a General Election was something else.

He had been elected as leader in part because the party saw him as the only person who could prevent Nigel Farage taking many votes away from the party. Essential to Johnson’s strategy to starve Farage of votes was to follow through on his commitment to leave with No Deal. After brief talks with the EU in which he tried unsuccessfully to change the withdrawal agreement, he reported back that the EU were being obstinate and obstructive, and therefore No Deal was the only way the UK could fulfill its promise to the people to Leave.

Parliament voted (narrowly) against leaving with No Deal, and instead instructed Johnson to seek an extension. He then obtained a six months extension to Article 50 to allow time for either a referendum or a General Election. He had, unsurprisingly, chosen a General Election, as his parliamentary majority (with the help of the DUP) was in danger of disappearing altogether.

By championing No Deal in the run up to the election, he managed to drastically reduce the Brexit party’s support. Those who favoured No Deal soon realised that it was pointless voting against a leader who was holding an election explicitly designed to get a mandate for No Deal. In contrast, the vote among those that were against No Deal was badly split.

As the election drew near Labour regained the lead among opposition parties because of its anti-austerity stance, its strong programme for economic reform and additional public investment. However the LibDem vote remained strong partly because many Remainers did not trust Corbyn on the Brexit issue. The unequivocal commitment by Labour not to try and renegotiate Brexit and instead support Remain as part of their manifesto came too late. Many also found it impossible to vote for a party that had been described as institutionally racist by the EHRC. Despite hopes based on 2017, the increase in Labour's vote during the campaign was modest, partly because the broadcast media gave a generous amount of time to the Liberal Democrats and also followed attack lines from the right wing media when talking about Labour.

Although the Remain vote far outnumbered the pro-No Deal vote, the split in the Remain vote was disastrous in the UK's FPTP electoral system. It led to the Conservatives beating Labour in nearly all Lab/Con marginals. Cummings did for Johnson what he had done for Vote Leave. In addition, the fact that Johnson had cut stamp duty and taxes for higher income earners, together with the slogan ‘vote Swinson get Corbyn’, limited the number of Tory Remain voters who defected to the LibDems. Once again the proportion of LibDem seats was far below their proportion of votes.

Recriminations began almost immediately. Those who voted LibDem blamed Labour for not replacing Corbyn as their leader. Labour blamed the LibDems for splitting the anti-Tory vote. Both were correct. It was Corbyn more than anyone who was responsible for creating and sustaining the LibDem surge at the European Elections by refusing to unequivocally support Remain, even though it would be impossible for Labour to get a soft Brexit through parliament. However those who voted LibDem because only the LibDems were the true Remain party had succeeded in destroying the Remain cause, and those who had voted LibDem because Labour was institutionally antisemitic had kept a party in power where almost half its members would not accept a Muslim as the country's Prime Minister.

With his enhanced majority Johnson took the UK out of the EU without a deal in December 2019. The year that had looked so hopeful for Remain when the UK failed to exit in March ended with the worst form of Brexit possible. 


Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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