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Friday 13 December 2019

General Election 2019

Never mind the ballots: election night special

Matt d’Ancona and Chris Cook on a victorious night for the Conservatives and a devastating one for Labour

Welcome to the election night edition of Never Mind the Ballots, our pop-up newsletter by Matt d’Ancona and Chris Cook who have been up all night in the Tortoise newsroom.

On many measures, it was an historic night. The Tories reached a majority of 326 seats at 4.57am.

First, the key points:

– It wasn’t Brexit that did for Corbyn – but the vacuity epitomised by his position on Brexit;

– Boris Johnson’s real rivals were David Cameron, Theresa May and John Major – he overshadowed them all;

–  ‘Get Brexit Done’ was banal and mind-numbing – but can you remember Labour’s slogan?

– The election campaign is turning the Tories into the party of the less-educated in England and Wales;

– The Union of the United Kingdom is the biggest loser at this election as nationalism has risen in every country.

First up, Matt:

The death of Corbynism

One of the earliest significant interventions after that stunning exit poll signalling the Tories were on course for a big win was also among the most powerful. On ITV, Alan Johnson, former Labour Home Secretary, pulled no punches in his exchange with Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum. “The working classes,” Johnson said, “have always been a big disappointment for Jon and his cult. Corbyn was a disaster on the doorstep. Everyone knew that he couldn’t lead the working class out of a paper bag. Now Jon’s developed this Momentum group, his party within a party, aiming to keep the purity, the culture of betrayal goes on. You’ll hear it now, more and more in the next couple of days as this little cult get their act together….I want Momentum gone. Go back to your student politics.”

In his righteous rage, Johnson challenged his party to confront the full, unvarnished truth about what, precisely, had just happened: namely, that Corbyn, and his very specific brand of 1960s international socialism, had been comprehensively rejected by the electorate.

Jeremy Corbyn greets party agents and activists at the count centre in Islington north London

Simultaneously, the Left was insisting that it was Brexit, not socialism, that had done for Labour, and, more specifically, the wicked ‘centrists’ who had supposedly forced Corbyn to accept the need for a final say referendum – thus driving Labour leavers into the Conservative fold.

But this was desperate stuff. Better to ask: might it have been even worse for Labour if Corbyn had not held on to those Remainers who conspicuously failed to desert the party en bloc for the Lib Dems?

The real problem with Corbyn’s Brexit policy was that – personally at least – he didn’t have one. He pledged to negotiate a new withdrawal deal with Brussels, hold a referendum, but to remain a bizarrely ambiguous ‘honest broker’. And that absurd vacuity encapsulated the much greater problem on the doorstep: that people looked at the Labour leader and simply did not see a prime-minister-in-waiting.

On Tuesday, I wrote that, even before polling day, Corbyn believed he had already won, having colonised Labour’s committees and internal institutions on behalf of a hard Left faction that would always put control of the party ahead of forming a government. At his count he was unapologetic about the campaign and his policies, promising to step down but not straight away.

In the wake of this devastating defeat, the Labour movement will now test to destruction the thesis that Corbyn may be gone, but that, somehow, Corbynism – or a cosmetic variant – is still the future. The answer is obvious. The question is how long it takes Labour to look squarely in the mirror.

Simple is efficient

In the quiz at Tortoise’s election DrinkIn last night, the room was stumped by the basic question: “What was Labour’s campaign slogan?” Compare and contrast the Conservatives’ ‘Get Brexit Done’ which, repeated ad nauseam, criticised for its emptiness, mind-numbing in its ubiquity was nonetheless the most memorable line of the campaign. Johnson was even repeating it as he gave his acceptance speech just before 3:45am at the count in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

In this respect, one saw the full impact of the message discipline so strongly championed by Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s closest adviser, in the 2016 referendum campaign – ‘Take Back Control’; and now repeated in a general election that, as it turned out, finished off the job begun by Vote Leave three-and-a-half years ago, yielding the Commons majority the PM needs to take the country out of the EU on 31 January.

Thus have we witnessed the first fully and comprehensively populist election victory in this country: a contest won by a simple answer to a complex question. Yes, there are plenty of hard yards ahead in the Brexit process (not least the near-impossible business of securing a trade deal with the EU in a mere 11 months). But, in the battle with Corbyn, the Cummings approach was unambiguously triumphant. Three words framed an entire campaign, with extraordinary consequences.

Boris Johnson on the final day of campaigning

By the way – in case you were wondering – Labour’s campaign slogan was: ‘It’s Time for Real Change’. A cluster of words that might have been designed by neuro-linguists to be forgotten within seconds of being uttered; as, indeed, they clearly were.

Johnson’s next steps

Having liberated his party from the arithmetic hell of a hung Parliament, surpassed David Cameron’s majority of 12 in 2015, and John Major’s 21 in 1992, the PM has secured the Tories’ best result since Margaret Thatcher’s 102-seat majority in 1987. What will he do with this liberation?

Ignore the banal promise of a ‘One Nation’ Tory government: those two words – for so long a signifier of a compassionate, old-school strand of conservatism – have been debased by over-use into meaninglessness.

Expect, instead, a style that owes more to that favoured by Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former Svengali: an end to fiscal conservatism; increased borrowing to fund infrastructure and intermittent bursts of populist spending and tax cuts; and tough talk on immigration (at odds, in time, with a more pragmatic policy on migration, forced by the needs of the economy).

Boris Johnson arrives at the count centre in Uxbridge, west London

A Cabinet reshuffle is already in the works, as is the swift re-scheduling of the Budget that was due to be held on 6 November and cancelled because of the election. But I’m told that, in presentation at least, the twin peaks of the new government will be the NHS and law and order. Johnson will claim to be delivering (finally) to the health service the Brexit dividend promised on the side of the infamous bus in 2016, while pursuing an unapologetically authoritarian agenda at the Home Office. From today, the new Tory slogan will be something like: ‘Reassure patients, terrify criminals’.


Of course not. Three years after her 1987 landslide, Thatcher was destroyed by the poll tax and (of course) Europe. As Brexit ceases to be the only show in town, all sorts of neglected issues will surge into the foreground and make life difficult for Johnson (the future of the Union, for a start, but also social care, climate change, automation, and the sense of a broken social contract detected by Tortoise on its election ThinkIn tour). The PM will have to learn how to be both agile, patient and strategically nuanced in a way that is alien to his nature. But nothing can take away from him the scale of what he has achieved in this campaign: it is nothing short of seismic.

Chris’s take:

Education, education, education

This election fits the pattern of, bluntly, everything, for a while. The UK’s politics are being realigned on educational lines. If you look at the change in Tory vote share and plot it against the proportion of population with degrees, you see a clear pattern.

The Tories soared in areas where local educational levels are lower – the left of this chart. They went backwards in areas where the share of graduates was higher – the right of this chart. On the very right is a cluster of seats which is almost all in London.

This is changing the distribution of the parties nationally: of the seats that have already declared, the Tories who previously had seven seats apiece in Wales and Yorkshire and the Humber, now has 14 in each. They tear through the North East – a surge from three to 10 MPs. Meanwhile, they stand still, more or less, in London and drift backwards in Scotland.

The overall effect has let the Tories burst through some traditional Labour seats. This is the Incomprehensible Graph™ showing all the seats in Great Britain, arranged from left to right according to how the seats voted at the 2017 election. Safe Tory seats are at left and safe opposition seats at the right. Marginal seats are in the middle. The seats are arranged vertically according to their 2016 referendum vote.

Now let’s colour in the dots which have changed hands. You can see huge Tory surges – the blue dots spilling out far into Labour seats where there were big Leave votes. And the SNP – the yellow globs – quietly mopped up other votes.

Regular readers might recall we’ve been looking at where the party leaders campaigned. That cluster of blue dots was won with Boris Johnson making few visits to those seats – perhaps because he proved a bit less adept at glad-handing than had been assumed.

But it is clear from our looking at Facebook spending that that cluster of seats was targeted heavily online. These blue rings show our estimates for how much bespoke Facebook spending was piled into each seat by the Tories. Don’t think too much about what the rings mean: the point is to just take in the broad picture about which zone of the graph is busiest. It’s the zone packed with seats they won.

We need to learn a lot more about how modern campaigns work.

The UK’s two Unions

The result will have serious implications for the UK’s relationship with the European Union. It will mean Brexit takes place, finally, in January. Then the grim work of negotiating the future partnership will begin. A big majority and a five-year wait until the next election may make it easier to cut a deal: Britain will need to concede a lot. We have prime minister who can pass a deal – and possibly prolong the implementation period.

Northern Ireland’s unionists will despair at the passing of the Johnson Withdrawal Agreement, which introduces checks on goods traffic between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. A big Tory majority also means the end of the Democratic Unionist party’s leverage in Westminster – their MPs do not matter if the Tories can build a majority on their own. But the bad news does not stop there for them. 

Nicola Sturgeon celebrates with SNP supporters

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein won the seat of Belfast North, which had been held by Nigel Dodds, the Democratic Unionist Party’s leader in Westminster. The SDLP, the moderate nationalists, stormed Belfast South. In North Down, unionism lost the seat to the Alliance, the non-aligned party. Yesterday, the unionist-nationalist scoreboard was 11 –7. It now stands at 8 – 9.

Unionism is in crisis more broadly. In Scotland, the SNP had a good night. They took the seat of Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem leader – the highest-profile victim of a nationalist wave which will likely leave them with 53 of the country’s 59 seats. Nicola Sturgeon will have good cause to claim that she has won public approval for a second independence referendum heading into the 2021 Scottish elections.

So we have nationalists ascendant in Northern Ireland, Scotland – and, of course, England and Wales. The 2016 English Leave coalition that has ripped through those two countries is a nationalist movement of its own. Johnson is not popular in Scotland, and Northern Ireland’s broad middle is deeply opposed to the Brexit project. The pressures inside the Union are going to rise and rise.

DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds after losing his seat to Sinn Fein candidate John Finucane

Nothing is certain: there are no guarantees that there will be a pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament after the 2021 election. The trial of Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader, could lead to unforeseeable consequences. In Northern Ireland, the political processes that would actually lead to Irish unity are a long way away: the BBC and NHS are popular. A big chunk of Irish nationalism would also not want unity on the basis of a narrow win.

I should say, the election of two SDLP MPs and one Alliance MP will mean Northern Ireland is better represented in Westminster. But it could be the edges of something. This England is hard to love. The UK could, literally, be a very different place at the next general election.