Updated: Jun 6, 2020
The 2019 election was the final blow of the death by a thousand cuts the British Conservative Party had meted out to its Labour opposition over the past decade. The triple threat had begun with George Osbourne’s Northern Powerhouse, progressed to Theresa May’s assurance that Brexit means Brexit, and found its zenith in Boris Johnson’s assurance that he would Get Brexit Done.
Boris won his ‘stonking’ majority through the seizing of Labour territory, much of which had hitherto been held for over a century. Tory strategists had become increasingly aware of the vulnerability of these seats, and planned accordingly. Working class voters across the Midlands, Wales, and the North of England had increasingly avoided the ballot box during the Blair years, and from 2001 deep rooted apathy became entrenched. Yet in spite of wide spread voting abstinence, these same voters remained a potent force, which is why the ‘Austerity’ programme overseen by George Osbourne made very sure that it’s headline slashes fell upon the middle classes, with student fees serving as one of the more prominent examples of this targeting.
WATCH: Labour MP Stephen Kinnock excellently outlines the conditions that led to the Conservative party converting traditional Labour voters
But in 2016, with the Brexit referendum, working class voters reengaged with politics en masse. Brexit became about more than leaving the European Union, and eventually came to encapsulate a whole swathe of concerns; political, social and economic, that had for some time been relegated from pubic discourse, but never drifted from the public consciousness. Subsequently, Nick Timothy, a proponent of the ‘Erdington Tory’ or 'Blue-Collar Conservative' philosophy, smelt blood. He co-wrote the 2017 Conservative Manifesto, and Theresa May became the vessel to embody it. Despite historic swings toward the Conservative party in Red Wall seats like Bolsover, they failed to win decisively, as university towns and urban centres swung decisively for Labour. But a firm foothold had been won, and despite losses in London, net gains were made in the North East.
After two more years of political wrangling, Boris Johnson, guided by his Chief of staff Dominic Cummings, took a ‘one more heave’ approach, won a landslide, and the rest is history. The Tories had used a twin pronged approach, of first waging an anti-liberal culture war with Brexit as a proxy, and second moving to the left economically, and in doing so it had positioned itself as the party of the British worker.
It’s this brief history that allows us to fully understand the British Government’s economic response to COVID-19. While the public health measures are, and under any government would be, driven by expert scientists, there is no blueprint for the economic response. Instead, the historically libertarian, small state vanguard against ‘banker bashing’, Boris Johnson, is tailoring his economic package to the electorate who appointed him. It falls to Boris to protect potters in Stoke, service workers in Bolsover, and manufactures in Teeside. As the Prime Minister, and his new Chancellor Rishi Sunak are keen to point out, the package is unprecedented, not just nationally, but globally. It’s become something of a trend for those on the left, from the US to the UK to point to Nordic countries as the finest examples of social democracies, which their own countries ought to emulate. I would posit it is for this exact reason that Boris announced he would pay British workers 80% of their furloughed salaries, shortly after Denmark announced state aid at the level of 75% of its workers salaries. Moreover, the British offer has been extended to incorporate the self-employed, in addition to PAYE workers.
The trend of helping the everyman is apparent in every measure. Small businesses are being given grants. Big businesses are offered loans. Business rate relief is being targeted for small and medium sized businesses, while large airlines are hitherto being sent packing. Some £200 billion in liquidity is being made available to the banks, but for the express purposes of providing low interest loans to the public. This is a bailout that comprehensively addresses the needs and concerns of the British worker, while leaving much of big business to go to the wall.
It is also a teachable moment. From an electoral standpoint, it demonstrates the British Conservative party’s ability to morph and shift in line with public wants. It was once said that ‘Conservatism, is whatever a Conservative Prime Minister does’, and it’s this philosophy that lies at the heart of Downing Street. This willingness to unshackle from rigid ideology is the ultimate strength of the Conservative party, and why it is generally considered the natural governing party. In times of pandemic party politics comes second, but when this crisis passes, unless or until opposition parties learn to do the same, the Conservatives, and Boris, will govern for another decade yet.