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The 'ugly boredom' of a very Brexit election



Tired and world weary, the British electorate went to the polls on Thursday. Rarely in history can there have been such an assemblage of unelectable or disappointing types standing for office or trying to remain in it. It proved to be an ugly boredom, though it was uglier for some than others.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the campaign trail in December 2019. (Photo by Ben Stansall — WPA Pool/Getty Images)The Conservatives, with Boris Johnson at the helm, battled on the premise that this was the Brexit election, effectively turning it into a de facto second referendum on Britain leaving the European Union. 'Get Brexit Done' remained his primary and misleading slogan, best exemplified by a bulldozing effort through a wall of foamed bricks titled 'Gridlock'.

But his populism, belligerence against the courts and Parliament, and a manifest streak of authoritarianism, disturbed such veteran scribblers as Peter Oborne, who, despite being conservative by creed, admitted that he could not vote for the Tories. 'Johnson has become the leader of a project — his adviser Dominic Cummings is an important part of this — to destroy Conservatism.'

Johnson the autocrat and the bully was in evidence in the last days of the campaign. He procured the immigration card again, claiming on Sky News that 'quite a large [number] of people coming in from the EU — 580 million population [were] able to treat the UK as though it's basically part of their own country'. Jobless unskilled workers were promised as favourite targets should he be returned to office. This was Johnson in jingoistic mood, changing his tone from a few weeks prior when he claimed migrants were his 'friends, family and neighbours'.

While the platform of Labour's Jeremy Corbyn aspired to be more humane with greater expenditure on services (health, education), he also dissembled about his attitudes to Brexit. Through the campaign he promised to remain resolutely neutral in any future Brexit referendum, hoping he could rebadge the election as one without the need to ever mention the 'B' word. This was slanted as virtuous partiality.

For his critics, it merely confirmed his weakness on the EU. Besides, went the sentiment, he really did not want to be in at all, but was not particularly clear on how to leave either. This was Labour's big problem of self-addling: whether the election would consolidate those voters wishing to remain in Europe, or see them defect to the Conservatives. As it transpired, Labour politicians might have, in the main, been Remainer types; part of their base, however, was not.

Nerves were aplenty before polls closed at 8pm. There was a sense that the Conservative lead in the polls had shrunk, with YouGov projecting a modest majority of 28 in the House of Commons.


"The hope that 'other issues would cut through' never materialised. The vote showed, again, a fractured sceptred isle."


The exit poll, with its 10pm release anxiously awaited, shelved any speculation about a hung parliament. Johnson, deemed a buffoon and bumbler by many even within his own party, had gone one better than his own previous prediction that becoming prime minister was as likely as being blinded by a champagne cork or decapitated by a frisbee. With a projection of 368 seats, it would be the best showing since Margaret Thatcher's thumping victories in 1987 (376) and 1983 (397).

The British Labour Party, in contrast, was facing its worst result since 1935. Labor-held constituencies such as Sedgefield, former prime minister Tony Blair's old seat, were voting Conservative for the first time in a century. Bishop Auckland was predicted to become Tory for the first time in its 134 history. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell found it 'extremely disappointing', refusing to blame Corbyn's leadership. The hope that 'other issues would cut through' never materialised.

The vote showed, again, a fractured sceptred isle. It was a reaffirmation of divisions through the country laid bare by the 2016 Brexit referendum. London did not budge from its Remain stance, but even there, a split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats saw the return of pro-Brexit Conservatives. Scotland went further in affirming its pro-European credentials; an improved nationalist vote suggested the possibility of another independence referendum in the offing. Westminster, however, is unlikely to grant Nicola Sturgeon that wish.

Through the rest of the country, the divisions were deep, the losers feeling surprised, bruised and sore. Celebrity Remainers such as thespians Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan were lacerated as enemies of democracy by television heavyweights such as Piers Morgan. Despite being a Remainer, he conceded that 'the only party that campaigned to honour the result of the EU Referendum won'.

Coogan did himself, and Labour's cause, few favours in attacking Conservative voters on the eve of the election, referencing his own comic character, Alan Partridge. 'Alan Partridge', he explained on a Channel 4 panel, 'is ill-informed and ignorant and therefore he's a Conservative and Brexiteer.' Coogan had suffered a Hillary Clinton 'basket of deplorables' moment. Never, say the wise heads of politics, attack the voter.

The Conservatives saw a chance for a neat subversion, a strategy deployed in Labour seats that had backed Brexit: wealthy progressives who wished Britain remain in Europe could not be trusted. A firm conservative majority was needed to ensure the break from the EU, without obstacles, and without empowered opponents on the court benches or parliament. This will come to be seen as a crude, simplified fantasy, but for the moment, the image of bold Britannia cut loose will be reiterated with self-deluding triumphalism.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image credit: Ben Stansall — WPA Pool/Getty Images

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Boris Johnson, UK election



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Existing comments

The "subversion" allegation is a liile imprecise, even if just applied to previously safe Labour seats; Conservative seats were lost for Brexit proponents too, only it appears Boris was the better "numbers" tactician. Obviously, it's plausible that voters can be Labour and pro-Brexit simultaneously; pundits and parties have misread the electorate sentiment and allegiance. The losers have a few years to "reflect" but it's reasonable to assume that the Brexit diversion will be done and dusted before polling rolls around again. Similarly, Boris can quite reasonably and rightfully state that migrants are friends, family and neighbors but take a stance on immigration; must the two be mutually exclusive or viewed a contradictory deception? We've just witnessed democracy at its finest, again; a competitive process and necessary celebration of the victory; "Be British" may have new meanings but is not deluded...just a sense of being lost on those who are not. My empathy extends to those who were confident of change and now must feel empty and crushed.

Ray | 13 December 2019  

“a de facto second referendum on Britain” This is the crux of the issue. Britons outside Scotland could have voted in their millions for the transparently and adamantly clear Remain of the Liberal Democrats, as the majority of Scots voted for the transparently and adamantly Remain of the SNP. But they went with the party leader unconditionally touting Leave, not with the other leader’s nuanced and conditional touting of Leave through not a second referendum on leaving but a referendum on a Leave deal to be palavered in the future, involving more monkeying around in the Commons. In going for the swift and slashing get-it-done-now option, British voters have converted the wafer-thin Leave majority of the actual Brexit referendum into a notional repeat referendum’s thumping mandate. They have now said “Leave” once more, but with passion. Therefore, criticisms of Johnson’s campaign postures are moot.

roy chen yee | 13 December 2019  

What emotive & ethereal language used to describe a very straight forward election. The people of the UK have had enough & there was only one Party ( and only one politician) who could deliver what the people want. Not just Brexit, but also addressing the issue of the basic needs of the British public such as more nurses for the NHS, more teachers & the much needed increase in the police force. Oh to be a political student to study this memorable part of history & to witness the demise of the Labour Party, who failed to believe that no one is above the people.

Sue Swift | 14 December 2019  

Binoy, surely if Bexit goes through (and it was the major issue) it will open up trade opportunities with the UK that were shut down in 1973. Apples, beef, cheese, alcohol, lamb, wool, mangoes will all be able to exported again. You are correct that Brexit is a very boring and fractious issue, but it just goes to show how the twin bombastic cards of border security and the economy deceive the electorate every time.

francis Armstrong | 14 December 2019  

Best commentary I've read on the UK election. Then I asked myself why did I care. It's because the UK is a political curiosity. There is no written constitution yet its Queen is described as a constitutional monarch. Its newly elected PM can talk about the One Nation Conservatives when the whole history of how this group of islands off the north east coast of Europe has been one of conflict & trickery leading to the creation of the artificial United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland. Ask the subjugated Scots what they think of that arrangement.

Uncle Pat | 14 December 2019  

Boris is not yet a statesman. He has won an important election though so credit to his eccentricity, bombastic persona and wild hair. I like Boris, as awful as he can be, which is not to applaud his particular brand of politics. Britain would do well to now respect and support Continental Europe while forging their own path. This is not impossible and friendships often thrive with a little distance.

Pam | 14 December 2019  

Binoy, While disappointed, I am not surprised. I spent time in the UK about ten years ago. Entry was difficult almost impossible as Home Office had to know you had a job , and if it fell through , you had to leave. What it meant to be British was the topic of conversation and constantly in Letters to the Editor.Fear of immigrants stealing British jobs was rampant. I worked with a number of teachers from former colonies. We were snubbed, a fact I have never forgotten. Well now the Brits have their cake, let them eat it!

Anonymous | 14 December 2019  

I have long been used to your left leaning view of things . But really your biased comment on the OK election goes too far. Your mindset was rejected by UK voters who did not think that Boris Johnson was a bungler and who felt that Brexit was a good thing as did voters in a referendum in 2016 the bungler was Jeremy Corbyn friend of terrorists whose circle are still nostalgic for the Soviet Empire. Even Labour people here in the UK admit that Brexit and Corbyn won Johnson the election

Andrew | 16 December 2019  

Dear Anonymous. The fact that workers from "former colonies" were snubbed (in favour of every Tom, Dick, Harry and former enemy of the UK) is one of the powerful reasons why the majority of true Brits voted for Brexit, quite apart from the fact that joining the EU weakened the Commonwealth and Britain's international influence. Britain has been dying - the electorate was simply yearning after the restoration of the powerful, healthy England, something the Scots and Irish can't countenance despite the dearth of input that either has contributed to the success of Great Britain in most fields of endeavour other than in literature and some aspects of the arts.

john frawley | 16 December 2019  

The Conservatives won the election, no doubt about that, but their success was the result of the British electoral system rather than any groundswell of support for Brexit on the basis of Johnson's 'deal'. The Conservatives gained 43.6% of the vote, the Brexit Party 2.0%, well short of an absolute majority, and well short of the bare majority that voted leave in the referendum. The majority of voters (53.4%) voted for parties that were opposed to Brexit, or at least opposed to Brexit on Johnson's terms. See < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Results_breakdown_of_the_2019_United_Kingdom_general_election#Results_by_party >

Ginger Meggs | 18 December 2019  

Ginger Meggs is right - the Tory vote was about the same as the Labour and Lib Dems, the greens 860,000 presumably would have gone to Labour, and where the Brexit Party vote would have gone I don't know. This is similar to Hillary Clinton gaining 3 million more votes but not becoming President. The UK system has produced a big majority Tory government, but that doesn't really reflect how people voted. That's dangerous for 'democracy'.

Russell | 19 December 2019  

I posted on Wednesday because in this ‘post fact’ environment it’s easy for the truth to be lost in our presuppositions. Another fact is that only 67% of the electorate voted. That means (another fact) that only 31% of the electorate voted (0.67 x 0.46) for the Conservative or Brexit parties. That hardly supports the opinion that ‘voters have said “Leave” once more, but with passion’. One can of course speculate on why one-third of the electorate failed to vote (was it apathy, boredom, the winter, lack of 'passion', the difficulty of voting on a working day, or something else?) but without further evidence (facts) that’s all it would be, speculation.

Ginger Meggs | 19 December 2019  

Bored and weary. My goodness, the total opposite! At last "freedom" is on the horizon! What a positive atmosphere in the air. Nobody could imagine a Marxist in No.10. Boris Johnson is a brilliant politican and has brought the country together.

Elena | 19 December 2019  

Ginger Meggs: “Another fact is that only 67% of the electorate voted.” Freedom to vote is not the same as being compelled to record your attendance at a polling station, so our 90%+ turnout is not necessarily a rah-rah bit of democratic virtue to be waved about on a flag. After all, 20.5% of the electorate chose to boycott the same-sex marriage plebiscite because they legally could. Nevertheless, if 33% of the UK electorate abstained from voting against Boris Johnson’s Brexit, they might as well be considered to have voted for it as they were withholding support from Corbyn. The passion comes from the former Labour voter in pro-Leave Labour seats who defected to the Tories. Unless you have optional-preferential voting, your only free preference is your first. Having to scrawl 2,3 and so on under the duress of having your vote invalidated is hardly free voting. In first-past-the-post, the biggest minority in a seat wins because there is usually no majority under conditions of freedom. 'Majority' is only an artificial construct. Compulsory preferential only produces a forced vote which appears to be free. Seats are what counts.

roy chen yee | 27 December 2019  

We all express opinions Roy, but the truth value of any opinion is only as good as the evidence and argument behind it. To be sure, evidence can sometimes be incomplete, and argument sometimes flawed, but opinions based on falsities, poor reasoning, or what we would like to think has happened deserve to be challenged. The facts are that about 31% of the electorate voted for the Tories or Brexit party, about 36% (0.67 x 0.53) voted for other parties, and about 33% failed to vote. So much for the facts, now for the argument. It would reasonable, I suggest, to argue that most of the Tory/Brexit voters probably supported Johnson’s ‘deal’, and that most of the those who voted for other parties probably did not. But to argue that those who didn’t vote also supported Johnson’s deal on the proposition without any evidence of why they didn’t vote but simply on the assertion that ‘they might as well be considered to have voted for it’ is, I suggest, not sustainable.

Ginger Meggs | 09 January 2020  

Ginger Meggs: “But to argue that those who didn’t vote also supported Johnson’s deal on the proposition without any evidence of why they didn’t vote but simply on the assertion that ‘they might as well be considered to have voted for it’ is, I suggest, not sustainable.” 33% is too large a proportion to be of the accidental I-couldn’t-vote-because-the-baby-was-sick contingency. If you don’t care, by default you support the status quo.

roy chen yee | 09 January 2020  

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