The Britain that has emerged today is different from the one that came before, its old political map erased, its economic model upended, its prospects uncertain—even its very unity in doubt. The Britain built by Tony Blair is gone, fatally undermined by David Cameron’s Brexit referendum and now swept away in a provincial tide of support for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.
To understand the scale of what has happened, remember that less than four years ago, Johnson was still London’s mayor and undecided about whether to back Leave or Remain in the referendum; Cameron was prime minister, with the first Conservative majority in more than 20 years; and Britain’s economy was among the most dynamic in Europe. A poll carried out the day before Johnson announced that he supported Brexit showed Remain running 15 percentage points ahead of Leave.
With the Brexit vote, the United Kingdom entered a period of rolling political drama. Johnson helped precipitate a crisis, benefited from it, and then called yesterday’s election to end it. In his triumph, he has killed off not just Blair’s Britain, but Cameron’s conservatism too.
In the six months since Johnson took over from Theresa May, his impact has been revolutionary. He has sheared off the Conservative Party’s most liberal wing, radicalized Britain’s divorce deal with the European Union—and won a thumping mandate from the public to see it through. In doing so, he has eliminated the opposition’s chances of blocking Brexit and set the country on course for a future not only outside the EU, but also one that remakes its regulatory, legal, and economic order.
It is, at its heart, a remarkable story of political change brought about by voters and politicians—and one politician in particular. Those who worked on the 2016 Vote Leave campaign believe that without Johnson’s support, Brexit would not have happened. And without Brexit, Johnson would have been entirely unable to fight the campaign he did, breaking through into areas that have not voted Conservative for generations but that switched, however skeptically, to “get Brexit done.” And yet, while this is a story with one central character, it is also about the deep structural and demographic currents working under the surface, eroding Labour’s historic heartlands and dragging Johnson to victory thanks to a new coalition of voters, transforming the Conservatives into a party that prioritizes national sovereignty and controls on immigration over economic growth, one that had the good fortune to face a Labour Party more out of touch with its base than ever before.
To understand the interplay between Johnson’s triumph and the forces he helped unleash in the Brexit referendum, I spoke with senior campaign insiders from both the Conservatives and Labour, as well as cabinet ministers, Johnson himself, election candidates, party activists, pollsters, and friends of the prime minister.
I returned to where I grew up, in England’s northeast, to tell this story. It was here, in Sedgefield, that Blair was a member of Parliament, where his political career began, where his Labour machine was in total control. That is, until last night.
When my parents moved to Sedgefield, in 1987, Blair was just another MP. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, fresh off a second election victory. Even then, at the peak of Thatcher’s powers, Sedgefield and the wider northeast remained high ground the Tory tide could not reach. It was always hard to imagine anything else. In my early life, Blair was an ever present figure. My parents were Labour activists; I was taken to Labour meetings when he spoke; he once made me tea in his pajamas. Though his visits were rarer as he rose in the national consciousness, Blair’s political operation here was all-controlling.
It remained so after Blair departed: In 2017, all seven constituencies in the county of Durham, where Sedgefield lies, voted Labour, as they had done for the previous 25 years. This part of the country—overwhelmingly white, largely working class, poorer than average, and now older than average—was the party’s core, with voters who’d stuck with it for generations, tied by culture, politics, and raw economics. Even as the Labour Party transformed under Blair, becoming more economically centrist, less left-wing, they supported it.
That world has now all but disappeared. In seat after seat across the northeast, Labour was swept from power. In former mining villages, industrial towns, rural valleys—and, finally, in Blair’s seat of Sedgefield. Early this morning, the result was confirmed: For the first time since 1931, the constituency that served as Blair’s stepping-stone to power had voted Conservative.
The result was announced at the Spennymoor Leisure Centre, where I went swimming as a child. Phil Wilson, the MP who replaced Blair in 2007, stood outside a sports hall used by the local tae kwon do club, surrounded by camera crews. Liberated by the scale of the party’s defeat, voice cracking with emotion, he let his real feelings spill out. The party had lost touch with its voters, its worldview appeared unpatriotic, its economic promises incredible, its internal culture intolerant, nasty, vengeful. But most of all, its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was simply unconscionable to far too many voters. For each one who told Wilson they could not support Labour, because of its failure to support Brexit, there were four or five who name-checked Corbyn, he said. “Time after time,” one Labour campaigner who worked for Wilson told me, “we heard, ‘I’m lending my support to Boris.’”
Boris, not the Tories.
Johnson cannot claim sole responsibility for this reversal—it has been a long time coming. For more than a decade, Labour’s electoral majorities here were narrowing, part of a wider demographic trend seen most starkly in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Over time, Labour’s vote has become more metropolitan, wealthier, more diverse, younger, and more educated—more in line with Remain. The Conservative vote has become poorer, whiter, older, less educated, and more provincial—like Leave. This shift was hastened by the EU referendum, which mirrored these emerging dividing lines, replacing the class loyalties that had largely held since the Second World War.
The changing demographics of each party’s vote meant that large areas of the country were up for grabs in this election. While the working class in County Durham, which voted Leave, has become less Labour, prosperous metropolitan England, which voted Remain, has gone in the other direction. In Lewisham Deptford, a constituency in southeast London where I now live, to take one example, the Labour vote has surged over the past few decades. Last night, Labour held on to it with more than 70 percent of the vote.
Johnson, then, not only inherited a change that has been slowly unpicking Britain’s political map for decades, but he did so at the very moment the accelerant applied by the EU referendum meant he could finally turn dozens of formerly safe Labour seats Tory blue.
Mud splattered on his suit, tie over his stomach bulge, Johnson squints in amusement at my question. I was with him as he campaigned in Salisbury, the town 90 miles from London made famous by the attempted assassination of a Russian spy and his daughter in 2018. I’d asked him what he was doing to relax. Chortling, Johnson replied: “What, apart from a few quadratic equations and reading pre-Socratic philosophy?” So you’re not exhausted? I asked, pressing him to give me something—anything—that might reveal a bit of the man underneath. Laughing again, he said, “I’m like a steel spring. I’m as fit as a butcher’s dog. I’m like … like a coiled spring!”
The exchange was meaningless on its face, nothing but mild fun for Johnson and his aides, who chuckled along with him. The answers were part of the toffish, intellectual act he has perfected since school. But they did offer something deeper about his campaign—and a glimpse of Johnson the man.
This, after all, was classic Johnson, giving the appearance of chaotic joviality—freedom—while saying nothing to distract from the campaign script. Had he offered a genuine insight into how he relaxes, he would have risked headlines and the creation in the national consciousness of an image beyond his control. Cameron, who woke before dawn every day to work through his official papers, cultivated a reputation for “chillaxing” that was both unfair and revealing. With Johnson, everyone in Britain knows him, or at least the character he has created, but very few appear to understand him.
Since becoming prime minister, Johnson has run a focused—even boring—campaign to turn the minority he inherited into his own majority. This is more like the real Johnson. Beneath all the hair and clothes, missives on Greek philosophy, and endless parking tickets is a man obsessed with his own elevation, who has won every popularity contest open to him, from school to university and on into politics, through to this moment, the only race that has ever really mattered to him. He is a man who exudes chaos, but has proved again and again that he is prepared to show enormous discipline, gather experts around him, empower them, and listen to their advice. He will bristle at and ignore anyone with real authority over him—whether a party leader or newspaper editor (he was previously a journalist)—but once he is the authority, he does not hesitate to ask for help. In the words of one former colleague who worked with him closely, he is a terrible team player, but a good team captain.
The past seven weeks are the culmination of a lifetime’s work to become prime minister and win a general election. Johnson ran a campaign of comparable rigidity to the one his predecessor, May, tried and was lampooned for in 2017. May stuck to the script—that only she offered the “strong and stable” leadership required to see through Brexit; similarly, Johnson insisted that only a Conservative majority under his leadership could “get Brexit done.” Like May, Johnson also promised voters an end to the austerity of the Cameron years. Johnson was spreading the same message against the same Labour opponent as May. And yet the two campaigns achieved markedly different results. Why?
First, the “strong and stable.” Counterintuitively, perhaps, Johnson’s campaign was more disciplined than May’s, which had the outward appearance of structure, but was divided on strategy and fatally undermined by ego, hubris, political naïveté, and, ultimately, her weakness of subcontracting leadership to competing aides and advisers. Johnson’s campaign was more tightly gripped, took the opposition more seriously, and showed more political ruthlessness in shutting down problem areas exposed during the May campaign.
While the Johnson and May campaigns made the same core offer—an end to Britain’s membership in the EU and a reversal of austerity—Johnson packaged it more attractively as the kind of change people wanted, not one they feared. He represented a return to normality the country craved, from the current status quo of cuts and chaos. He offered no major changes to the size of the state, or to public services, taxes, or public spending. Johnson’s strategy was to give people the chance to change the bad things about politics, without the fear of what a Tory government would do with this license.
In Salisbury, asked why it was such a dull campaign, Johnson replied, “I’m not the artist; I’m merely the subject—it is for you to apply the rich chiaroscuro to your canvas.” Chiaroscuro is an artistic technique used to contrast light and shadow and give life and depth to a painting. Yet in the campaign, Johnson himself was the chiaroscuro, adding to the drab canvas he was offering the electorate.
Ultimately, Johnson could not afford a vivid, Technicolor message, because that is what his opponent had—Corbyn pledged substantial government largesse, renationalizing a raft of services, and expanding the state. Johnson could win only with Brexit, changing voter demographics, and the good fortune of running against Corbyn, the most unpopular candidate for prime minister in modern history. Had Johnson strayed off course, he would have sailed into the strong countervailing winds working in Corbyn’s favor: a decade of austerity, pitiful earnings growth, increased waiting times at hospitals, and the desire for something new.
The Conservative campaign—and Johnson himself―made mistakes, and Labour landed some serious blows. Yet Johnson largely stuck to his task, delivering the message most potent for him and most dangerous to Corbyn. The circumstances were to his benefit, and he was the one who took advantage. Of all the factors that affect a campaign, one election expert who worked on the 2017 campaign told me, “No. 1 is [the] candidate.”
One of the recurring features of Johnson’s life is his refusal to be bound by orthodox expectations. His political career has primarily been propelled by his celebrity, thereby escaping the obligations that come from relying on the patronage of others. When he became prime minister, he reached the pinnacle of Britain’s cursus honorum, but was hemmed in by his predecessor’s political failure, leaving him unable to act as he wanted. In hindsight, he was always likely to seek his own mandate.
Johnson’s friends who spoke with me for this piece said his willingness to gamble—to risk having one of the shortest-lived, most unsuccessful premierships in history for the sake of his own freedom of action—is rooted in this part of his character, in which he is almost pathologically unwilling to follow other people’s rules, obligations, or impositions. Those less well disposed to him pointed out that this trait spills over into his private life, in which the feelings of friends, family, and colleagues are mere collateral damage in his ascent.
Even with that in mind, this election was a hefty bet. The Conservatives’ only route to a majority was through areas that had not voted Tory for years and instinctively distrusted the party, particularly on public services. The vote was triggered with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party—the Conservatives’ biggest threat on the political right—touching 15 percent in the polls, enough to deprive Johnson of a majority. And even if all these challenges could be overcome, should Britain’s anti-Brexit Remainers unite, his chances of emerging victorious would be severely curtailed.
“He’s got the same deck of cards as Theresa May, but he’s played them differently,” Guto Harri, a friend of Johnson’s who worked for him when he was mayor of London, told me. “He’s gone into this election through choice. He’s bullied and corralled everyone to go along with him. He’s not interested in going into power to live in No. 10 or hang around in Chequers. It’s shit or bust.”
Other friends and colleagues who work with him in close quarters say he gets upset by personal criticism, is prone to ups and downs, and can appear strangely vulnerable and superstitious, often allowing a wan smirk to sneak out when he’s feeling uncomfortable. But equally, those who spoke with me said, he is quick to snap out of his distractions or introspective moments, and is often the one buzzing with the most optimism and humor, particularly in morning meetings.
The other side to Johnson’s character, which emerged in conversations with friends, former colleagues, and aides involved in this campaign and the Brexit referendum, is his political ruthlessness and amorality. One of his former editors told me that Johnson enjoyed Roman history in part because he liked their system of multiple gods representing multiple forces one can appeal to. He finds today’s monotheistic world too morally restrictive, this ex-colleague said. A friend who works closely with him, and who is a supporter of Brexit, put it more bluntly: “We needed a bastard.”
This combination in Johnson, friends and colleagues told me—political audacity, celebrity, and a tolerance for risk, as well as an inclination to do what is necessary to achieve power—is what made him a better candidate than May. A British-election study of 30,000 voters, undertaken after the 2017 election, showed that the main reason Labour did so well during that campaign was Corbyn’s strong performance relative to May. Both were remarkably unknown political figures, given their prominence. In this election, both leaders were remarkably known—and this time, Johnson’s personal ratings stayed ahead of Corbyn’s throughout. Britain had its bastard, and decided to vote him in.
“Character is destiny, said the Greeks, and I agree,” Johnson wrote in The Churchill Factor, his 2014 book about Winston Churchill, which carries the subtitle How One Man Made History. This is Johnson’s version of his own seemingly inevitable triumph: the version in which he saves the country like his hero Pericles, delivering it from crippling self-doubt and indecision after Brexit. In this version he proves, as he has throughout his life, that the rules are for the little people. Others, like himself, show that life can be bent to the will of great men.
In the space of six months, he has inherited a political disaster and turned it into a political triumph. And yet, for Johnson’s admirers—indeed, for Johnson himself—it is not so simple. Brexit was a wave whose currents already existed before 2016, caused by economic and demographic changes, further powered by the financial crash a decade ago.
To win this election, the Conservative Party needed Johnson, but he could not have won without Brexit, and Brexit could not have happened without him. What he inherits, however, as he reenters 10 Downing Street, is a series of problems that personality alone cannot solve: from the trade-offs inherent in Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with Europe to the future viability of the Conservatives’ new electoral coalition and Britain’s economic competitiveness. None of these challenges is insurmountable, but they do require Johnson to be as effective with power as he has been at getting it. As with Brexit, today’s triumph is the end of the beginning of the story, not the end in itself.
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