Boris Johnson took a huge gamble by calling a December general election for the first time in almost a century. But he was celebrating on Friday morning after the Conservatives scored one of their biggest general election victories in recent years, telling party activists: “We broke the gridlock, we ended the deadlock, we smashed the road block.” The prime minister’s victory rests on a number of factors, which included:
Boris Johnson’s message that he would “get Brexit done”, repeated over and over again, appears to have resonated with a public weary of the lack of resolution over the UK leaving the EU.
He stressed throughout the campaign that he would sort out the issue quickly with his “oven-ready” deal, even though the UK is heading for years of trade negotiations and uncertainty at the end of next year when the transition period comes to an end. And he repeatedly stressed the prospect of a Labour government leading to another referendum.
Simplicity of message
The Tories’ message was much more focused than Labour’s. Johnson focused relentlessly on the “get Brexit done” slogan as well as pledges about more police officers and nurses. In contrast, Labour had a multiplicity of huge policy offers from mass nationalisation to free broadband and compensating women in their 50s for the rise in the pension age. Ultimately, concentrating on a small number of core pledges seems to have given Johnson the cut-through he needed.
A safety-first strategy
The Conservatives launched a manifesto that was short on eye-catching policy offers, beyond a small tax cut to national insurance and a very modest increase in public spending. The party was keen to avoid the disaster of Theresa May’s 2017 manifesto when she unveiled an unpopular policy on social care that was soon dubbed a “death tax” by Labour. This time, the party steered clear of any controversial pledges. The manifesto was so cautious it even contained promises not to do things, such as a pledge not to bring back fox-hunting.
The Labour vote dropped dramatically in many areas. In some places, the Conservative vote did not go up hugely but Johnson’s candidate came out on top because traditional Labour voters appeared to have stayed at home or voted for the Brexit party. Defeated MPs have variously blamed the party’s Brexit position and Corbyn’s leadership for the suppression of the Labour vote.
Candidates said throughout the election that while Jeremy Corbyn was unpopular on the doorstep, there was little enthusiasm for Johnson either. However, he was clearly a stronger candidate throughout the campaign than May in 2017, submitting to two head-to-head leadership debates in which he made no major slip-ups. The gaffe-prone prime minister also stayed on message until almost the end of the campaign, when he was pilloried for refusing to look at a picture of a small boy on a hospital floor and hiding in a fridge to escape a TV interviewer. Throughout, his leadership ratings were substantially higher than Corbyn’s.