The Lessons American Conservatives Can Learn from the Tories’ Victory

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses his supporters in front of the general election campaign trail bus in Manchester, England, November 15, 2019. (Frank Augstein/Reuters Pool)

Though there are limits to the parallels that can be drawn between British and American politics, yesterday’s results still yield some insights.

It’s tempting to draw parallels between the course of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump. Both harnessed broader disruptive energies — away from entrenched party establishments and toward a more populist and nationally vectored politics. The success of the Brexit referendum in June of 2016 seemed a harbinger of Trump’s victory in November. The smashing of Tory boats on the shoals of austerity politics in 2017 augured defeat for the Republican party in the 2018 midterms. But there there are limits to the insights that can be gleaned about November 2020 from studying the electoral entrails of yesterday’s Parliamentary election, in which the Tories secured a larger-than-expected majority.

Jeremy Corbyn was a drag on Labour, and the party’s lurch to the left likely turned off some voters, too. Brexit played an important role in the election results. Prime Minister Boris Johnson grasped the realignment of British politics. Johnson had to kill off the threat of a Brexit party challenge while also appealing to the working-class voters who comprise a growing portion of the Tory base. He played hardball to commit the Conservatives unequivocally to Brexit, even casting out of the party those MPs who voted against his Brexit policy. His efforts were helped by the fact that Labour switched from its 2017 position of honoring the Brexit referendum to calling for a second referendum in its latest election manifesto. But the Conservatives made other moves to reach out to working-class, Brexit-friendly voters. While Theresa May shredded her majority by dabbling in austerity politics (the infamous “dementia tax”), Johnson said he would boost health-care spending.

There are obvious lessons here for American politics. As working-class voters migrate to the Republican column, the GOP will probably have to do more to represent blue-collar concerns in its policy platform. (In many respects, it looks like this lesson hasn’t been learned yet.) A radical swing to the left — especially on cultural issues — could pose a danger to Democrats in 2020. Many suburban voters are suspicious of Trump, but they are also repelled by plans to abolish private health insurance and impose radical “wokeness” upon the nation as a whole.

There are, however, some major differences between the U.K. and the U.S. here, too. Boris Johnson was able to make a novel alliance, simultaneously appealing to populist sentiments while also appearing as the champion of constitutional normalcy. The through-the-looking-glass world of recent years has presented many surprising inversions, one of which is that many members of the political establishment have themselves succumbed to the very constitutional pyromania of which they accuse populists. In the United Kingdom, establishment resistance to honoring the 2016 referendum ensured an extended constitutional torment. The British public (and observers abroad) witnessed month after month of parliamentary paralysis, as MPs voted not to leave without a deal, and then against every deal that was offered.

Before the election was called, a majority of members seemed to be in support of Johnson’s newly negotiated deal with the European Union — just not right now. “No deal” wasn’t an option, but MPs couldn’t get behind any one particular deal, either. Meanwhile, the proponents of Remain were clear: The path to thwarting Brexit would be lined with yet more constitutional chaos — a hung parliament, perhaps a new election, maybe a second referendum. (If there was to be a second referendum, it wasn’t even clear that Remainers would have accepted a vote to leave; after all, they said that the first referendum would be a once-in-a-lifetime vote.)

All this melodrama made Johnson’s campaign message — “get Brexit done” — seem quite moderate. Brexit has toxified British politics for over three years now, and Johnson called for turning the page on it to get back to business as usual. Of course, even if the United Kingdom does end up leaving the EU, there will be many months of negotiations to establish its new relationship to the federation, and a post-EU Britain will face new challenges and opportunities. But Johnson bet on the belief that many British voters were tired of the paralysis induced by will-we-won’t-we Brexit politics. Coupled with the new radicalism of the Labour party, this politics of normalcy helped reduce Conservative bleeding in better-off, Remain-sympathetic constituencies.

In American politics, the situation is somewhat different. A Democratic party racing to the left and consumed by the psychology of the #resistance would seem to give Trump an opening to portray himself as the candidate who wants to get things done. Instead, the president leaps from one personal firestorm to the next. Rather than trying to portray impeachment as a distraction from the task of governing, as Bill Clinton once did, Trump instead leans into it. Though it might thrill some committed partisans, WWE-style politics — in which sound and fury replace actual policy movement — turns off many other voters. The White House could still try to solve this problem by implementing more rhetorical discipline, prioritizing pro-worker policies, and showing more administrative probity. But the constant polarization has alienated many voters, perhaps permanently.

The results of the 2019 parliamentary elections do suggest one broader lesson: In this time of political realignment, center-right political parties can wrack up major wins by taking populist concerns seriously while also offering an inclusive message. One of the great challenges facing the center-right in the years ahead might, then, be how to balance market principles and worker priorities. Waving the bloody shirt of “left-wing coup” or “socialism!” seems unlikely to do the trick. But some policy imagination just might.

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