Boris Johnson appears to rule the waves at the moment. His lacklustre initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have been wiped from voters’ minds by the United Kingdom’s relative success on the vaccines front. His constant tiptoeing along the line between scandal and self-deprecating farce is tolerated by the public.
According to Ipsos-Mori, Johnson’s personal ratings are a net 26 points ahead of Keir Starmer’s as Leader of the Opposition (+2 as opposed to -24). The Government just triumphed in the Hartlepool by-election, and it wasn’t close: the Tories triumphed by nearly 7,000 votes on a 16% swing.
The Conservatives also just managed to win 235 more councillors in England’s local election extraordinary result for a government that has been in power for so long. Although the results were complex, they were born of the same movement of tectonic electoral plates as we saw in the 2019 General Election, and to some extent just saw council wards catch up with Parliamentary seats.
Broadly speaking, the Conservatives did well wherever lots of older, propertied, fairly secure but socially conservative voters turned towards them and away from the liberalism and urbanism of the Left: parties of the Left did well in exactly the obverse England, younger and more professional – for instance in Oxfordshire. The great thing for the Tories is that there are many more likely marginal holds and gains for them in the Parliamentary map of the former than the latter.
Yet there are still lots of things that can go wrong for the Prime Minister, in England just as they can across the UK as a whole. As we hopefully move towards the final states of Covid’s acute phase, economic optimism is touching historic highs. Many more affluent voters have stored up new savings while they have been locked up in their own houses. The government has gone on a spending spree to save the economy.
When all of these elements go into reverse – and when the obvious ‘vaccine bounce’ recedes – will be the moment to peer into the party political future, not now when Britain is still to some extent in a wartime public policy stance. On any measure, the economy will slow markedly as we approach the next election in 2023 or 2024; any surge in real wages may have passed; the Treasury under Rishi Sunak seems determined to claw back as much Covid economic support as it can.
Brexit, too, will continue to vex the UK’s political class, and shape the electoral map of England, for years to come. Some form of crisis is clearly bubbling up over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which the British government disingenuously claims is ‘not working’ as it should – despite being warned by almost everyone who understands trade exactly the impediments to trade it would pose between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Relations with the EU 27 and the Commission seem not so much to have cooled, but to have frozen over: the Prime Minister’s lead negotiator, Lord Frost, appears to enjoy the air of suspicion and confrontation that he has wrought since taking over from the more emollient Michael Gove in February.
Still, that air of self-indulgent pugilism is a clue to what is really going on: the capture of a certain kind of English nationalism that welcomes a dust-up, and enjoys a rival. Here the drawing up of dividing lines recalls the rivalry with Sturgeon. Far better to keep the conflict going on a nice low heat, never quite boiling over, than to actually blow up the whole process.
For these reasons, expect the British to continue failing to implement key parts of the protocol, such as controls on the movement of animals or the construction of border posts. So much the better, Frost and Johnson will reason in their rather threadbare strongman act, to put pressure on the EU while looking tough at home.
Even if the Protocol did collapse, after some form of blundering miscalculation on the part of London or the 27, it would have to put back together in some form or other: the alternatives, a Customs Union between the UK and the EU or a border in Ireland, are now simply unthinkable.
So that very odd couple, Brexit Britain and semi-united Europe, are just going to have to rub along with each other, just as they did in the 1950s and 1960s before Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community. Sometimes that will be tense, as in Northern Ireland: sometimes, in terms of defence, intelligence and perhaps intellectual co-operation, closer links will be forged.
In England itself, further devolution is to be expected – especially because the Government now envisages regional Mayors being elected by First Past the Post, rather than the Supplementary Vote system used now, with its two-choice ballot paper. This change will help more Tories get elected: Labour’s Nik Johnson would not have beaten James Palmer to the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mayoralty if not for the second choice of those plumping first for the Liberal Democrats.
Johnson knows that he has to show an awareness and understanding of a sense of place, locality and loyalty across England’s exurbs and towns if he is to strengthen his party’s grip on power, not just in 2023 or 2024 but in 2028 or 2029 as well.
Combined with the Prime Minister’s well-known love of infrastructure and transport projects, a rash of increased regional and local initiatives are to be expected – also, in true Johnsonian style, to be disavowed and blamed if things go wrong.
Johnson’s England is a strange place, becoming more multicultural and more tolerant all the time, governed by a party and a leader who have found what is for now the secret of concentrating all their votes exactly where they need them by flip-flopping between insular nativism and global talk of a new national mission – undermining historic Labour heartlands while hanging onto their own increasingly heterogeneous seats.
And then, of course, there is the question of Scotland – as relevant in some ways in England as it is north of Berwick and Carlisle. Eventually, at some point, the question of Scotland’s statehood may well be put to a public vote again – with deeply unpredictable consequences.
Many commentators, by no means all on the Left, would welcome Scottish independence as an act of creative destruction, along the lines beloved of the Austrian political economist Joseph Schumpeter. Here the theory goes that the shake-up and shock involved would at least rock British politics off its established course: it might expose the present governing dispensation for the gamble and confidence trick it really is.
On the other hand – and the range of views is one hint as to the uncertainty involved – Scotland’s exit from the Union might further entrench nativist populism, especially in England. What better fuel for the fire could there be? A new neighbour, rival and competitor; a long and rancorous negotiations about the terms; another people onto whom failures can be projected.
In reality, the reaction to any such rupture is likely to be a lot more complex, and perhaps more initially muted, than expected. The true results of any such profound change will take a long time to work themselves out: voters may look on in apparent calm for a while, waiting to see what happens, even as Westminster and Whitehall tie themselves into a pretzel.
It’s not even as if a majority of English voters particularly want Scotland to stay: when YouGov asked about this last autumn, only 46% really opposed independence (though it was a really small minority of 13% who actively sought that outcome). The English were fairly inclined to let Scots decide: 36% picked the option of leaving the question to Scottish voters.
Recent data from Savanta ComRes has confirmed the picture: 32% of English voters opposed Scottish independence, but only 20% did so ‘strongly’, 25% were in favour of the idea; 30% had no strong opinion. It is the standard opinion that the division of the Union could bring any government – certainly any Prime Minister – crashing down. Voters themselves may think otherwise, at least until the bitter divorce really got going.
The actual near-term future will probably be nothing like so dramatic. What will Boris Johnson do? He will do what he always does. He will obfuscate, expostulate, deflect and joke – before leaving someone else to clean up his mess. Expect a lot of warm words about how a new independence referendum might happen under ‘the right circumstances’, allied to an interminable Waiting-for-Godot kicking of heels.
As he surveys the English and Welsh electoral landscape, other reasons for an indefinite pause will very likely appeal to Johnson. For one thing, the enormous expenditure of political attention and sheer energy involved in a new battle over Scottish independence might distract from his (extremely uncharacteristic) laser-like focus on the beliefs and desires of voters in medium-sized towns. Why be seen to pay attention to a country which contains only two target seats in the Tory top thirty?
For another, the Prime Minister may relish having Nicola Sturgeon, or any successor, as a foil or threat against which to define himself. Here Edinburgh will play the same role as Brussels, with an on-off conflict kept bubbling but never boiling. Mildly indifferent as they may be to the actual reality of Scottish independence, English voters in particular increasingly resent Sturgeon’s influence on the political system, and certainly (as in 2015) may shy away if there is any prospect of a Labour government supported by the SNP.
Three pollsters tested voters’ views of Sturgeon on an all-Britain basis during May, and all came back with negative figures from their slightly different questions: the actual results were a net -6 with Redfield and Wilton, -17 with Ipsos-Mori and -9 with Panelbase. This, it should be noted, at a time when Scottish voters still thought highly of the First Minister: Survation put her at +19 just before the Holyrood election.
Johnson’s dominance will not last forever. But while it does, his cynical take on an England surrounded by those who wish it ill – the SNP, the Europeans – means just enough battles to make it all seem real, without so many confrontations as it might impinge on real life. But it is a delicate balancing act. Once the spell is broken, England’s Emperor may be seen to have no clothes.
Oxford Brookes University
Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books and articles about modern Britain, including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-1973 (2012) and The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017). He is currently working on a history of the Blair government of 1997-2007, and leading an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project entitled ‘In All Our Footsteps: Tracking, Mapping and Experiencing Rights of Way in Post-War Britain’.