There’s nothing quite so transformative as a Prime Minister in possession of a large majority. In the days following Boris Johnson’s trouncing of Jeremy Corbyn, I found it quite commonplace for people to tell me they were now willing to “give him a chance”.
Of course, if you’re the kind of person who gets out of bed each morning wondering how you can advance the cause of Scottish independence or socialism – or both – you are unlikely to share this sentiment. The disbelief among Nationalists and the hard-left at the scale of the Conservative victory, the spitting outrage that the thickos in the electorate had ignored their warnings that Johnson would finish off the poor and grant free yachts to his rich pals, was quite something to behold. And, since then, the arrogant response from Corbynistas – the stubborn assertion they “won the argument”, whatever that means – has become rather amusing.
But if you’re the sort of voter who engages with politics only fitfully, and who has found the past few years something of a horror show on all sides, there’s a reasonable chance you’ll have greeted Johnson’s landslide majority of 80 with some relief. You’ll also, being a Brit, regard it as only fair play that Johnson now be allowed to give it a bash. The second half of the 2010s has seen Britain caught in a trap, unable to advance or retreat, doomed to live the same Brexit debate over and over again.
Meanwhile, the bits of government that most commonly touch voters’ lives – schools, hospitals, jobs, welfare etc – have been banished to the sidelines.
At the very least, Johnson now has a mandate to take the UK out of the EU. No one doubts the difficulties involved, and how much government time will be consumed over a great many years, but a comprehensive democratic decision has been made: the election more than reaffirmed the outcome of the 2016 referendum. This at least allows us to accept that Brexit is happening and to begin the process of moving on.
Were this the limit of the Prime Minister’s ambitions, one might think it enough. But Johnson has made it clear there will be more to his government than Brexit. Elected by an unprecedented constituency that includes vast swathes of the north of England and the Midlands, he has begun to set out how he intends to reward this support.
Ahead of the spring Budget, ministers are rethinking government investment in key areas such as infrastructure and business development. Rather than focus on overall national growth, the calculations behind such investments will concentrate on how the wellbeing of people in the north can be improved, and on narrowing the productivity gap with the south of England, the UK’s main economic engine.
Johnson obviously wants those who voted for him earlier this month to do the same at the next election. But he also intends explicitly to address the concerns that led many in these constituencies to support Brexit – the sense that the status quo was not working for them, and that they felt their prospects were taking a distant second place to those of their more glamorous southern compatriots.
His ban on ministers attending Davos, the plush annual gathering in the Swiss Alps that has become a byword for the exclusivity of the global elites, is tokenistic but sends a clear indication as to whose side the government is on. And we can expect an array of eye-catching stunts in the forthcoming Budget that will ram home the message that Britain once again has a government that has the parliamentary strength to act as it sees fit and doesn’t have to rely on stuffing DUP mouths with gold or striking deals within various internal Tory factions.
From a Scottish perspective, the response might fairly be “what does all this have to do with us?” Well, let’s wait and see. There is a view among Westminster strategists that Johnson’s government will also find ways to spend big north of the Border. If there is a Johnson goal in relation to Scotland it is to stop the SNP winning a pro-independence majority in the 2021 Holyrood election. If he can do that, the prospect of a second independence recedes, possibly for decades. That is a prize worth fighting for.
Nicola Sturgeon went into the Christmas break sitting pretty, high on her own brilliant election result. The SNP haul of 48 seats shows her party retains a dominant grip on Scottish politics and the Scottish electorate. She is nicely set up for the battle that lies ahead.
But that battle will be a street fight, as well as an air and propaganda war. Johnson’s main adviser Dominic Cummings, whose counter-intuitive take on political campaigning has been behind so much of the right’s success in recent years, will approach the SNP much as the lawyer Jolyon Maugham did that unlucky fox on Boxing Day morning. The Tories managed to keep seats in the north-east and the south of Scotland in the election, showing their return to credibility is real and will survive the departure of Ruth Davidson.
In the last Holyrood election, the SNP fell two seats short of an overall majority, and have relied on the pro-indy Greens to get their programme through. It is entirely feasible they will fall back further in 2021– and securing this outcome will dominate Tory thinking.
A largely centrist Westminster government – which, I think, is what Johnson intends to provide – will not present the bogeyman Sturgeon is relying on.
A government that focuses on addressing many of the complaints that drove the Brexit vote, that pushes on with a reform agenda in the public services, and that includes Scotland in its plans for national renewal, could be appealing to that vast swathe of middle Scotland which isn’t tribal, or committed to one course or another, and which is growing restive at the SNP’s diffident performance in government.
There is a lot of ruin in the Union, and there remains a strong and credible case to be made for its continuance.
Those who have bet against Johnson in the past have often ended up on the losing side. Nicola Sturgeon would be ill-advised to underestimate him now.