Boris Johnson Hit the Jackpot—But Will It Last? | Opinion

After constant frustration in repeated attempts to break the logjam and get any Brexit deal passed at Westminster, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a U.K. general election on December 12, rolling the dice. He hit the jackpot.

The Conservative government, which promised to "get Brexit done" and lavish cash on public services, was returned triumphantly with 365 seats, its largest Westminster majority since 1987. This is all the more remarkable given years of austerity cuts by successive Conservative governments under David Cameron and Theresa May, doubts about Johnson's flamboyant character and internal party division over Britain's membership in the EU.

By contrast, support for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party collapsed, dropping to 203 seats, its worst result for eight decades, and its fourth successive general election defeat. The Labour campaign platform was based on "politics as usual"—more spending on the National Health Service, no tuition fees, free child care, higher wages and more radical left-wing economic policies, while prevaricating on Brexit.

North of the border, the Scottish National Party swept the board with the pledge of holding a second independence referendum. Elsewhere, minor parties—the Liberal Democrats and Greens—stalled in their tracks, with Liberal Democrats losing their leader, Jo Swinson.

Was this a one-off Brexit election, with a likely eventual return to the status quo? As Johnson remarked in his victory speech, "You may have only leant us your vote. You may not think of yourself as a natural Tory.... Your hand may have quivered over the ballot paper before you put your cross in the Conservative box." Only subsequent contests will tell whether this is a purely temporary defection over Brexit. What transpired on Thursday, however, bears many of the signs of a once-in-a-lifetime phenomena—a critical realignment redefining the basis of British politics.

That kind of watershed contest, breaking traditional party and class loyalties, is exemplified in America by the Roosevelt era of Democratic dominance following the Great Recession, the resurgence of conservatism under Reagan in the 1980s and possibly President Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 U.S. election, reflecting a hostile takeover of the Republican Party by authoritarian-populist forces, although the durability of Trumpism remains to be determined.

In the U.K., the two-party, class-based politics predominated at Westminster from 1945 to 2010. Deep polarization over Brexit, reflecting divisions between the values of nationalism and cosmopolitanism, has now split the country apart—and may continue to divide parties and the electorate long after Britain leaves the EU.

However, it is wise to be cautious when interpreting the long-term impact of the 2019 general election. Many false dawns, predicting the breakdown of two-party politics, have occurred, only to fall back in subsequent parliamentary contests. In 1983, following the Tory landslide and Labour's nadir, many claimed Thatcherism was invincible. In 1997, similar hopes surrounded Tony Blair's Labour sweep.

Nevertheless, the 2019 contest shares characteristics of critical elections in the past, in Britain and elsewhere. Johnson's strategic appeals over Brexit, which emerged as the most important issue in YouGov polls during the campaign, broke deep-rooted Labour Party habitual loyalties among Leavers in former mining and mill towns that have been never changed hands in their history. Labour failed to make equivalent gains by mobilizing younger voters and targeting middle-class professionals in Remain Conservative seats in the South. This could suggest major shifts in partisan loyalties in Northern and Southern Britain. Class ties have weakened over many decades but the generation gap in the U.K. electorate is only growing.

Why did Labour fail? In 2017, the Conservative Party responded to the threat of the Brexit Party in 2017 by shifting to become more socially conservative and more Eurosceptic. Most of the opposition parties moved simultaneously in the opposite direction, becoming more strongly Remain, heightening polarization over the EU. The one clear exception is the Labour Party, which moved after the 2016 Brexit referendum toward the center position on Europe—just at a time when the general electorate polarized into two distinct Leave-Remain camps.

Under Corbyn's assiduous fence-sitting, Labour adopted a position that is neither Remain fish nor Leave fowl. It failed to convince voters.

Boris Johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives back at 10 Downing Street after visiting Buckingham Palace where he was given permission to form the next government during an audience with Queen Elizabeth II on December 13 in London. Stefan Rousseau/Getty

The extraordinary election results may transform the familiar geographical map of U.K. party support, threatening Labour's Northern heartlands, similar to the Republican takeover of the Solid South in the late 1960s. Yet it may prove to be a unique event, dominated by the bitter and poisonous divisions over Brexit, and two-party politics may return to normal once Britain withdraws from the EU and the fever breaks.

Calling the election was always a high-risk move by Johnson. It has rewarded the Conservatives handsomely. Brexit will now be enacted by Parliament—although trade negotiations will continue for years. Labour and the Liberal Democrats will elect new leaders. Scotland will press for another referendum vote over Independence.

It is not hyperbole to claim that the future of Brexit, the future of Westminster party politics and even the future of the United Kingdom nation-state all hang in the balance. The Democrats would benefit from reflecting on these stunning events across the pond, as they ponder their choice of centrist or progressive nominees and their prospects in the 2020 presidential elections.

Pippa Norris is the Paul Maguire lecturer in comparative politics at Harvard University and the author of numerous books on British and comparative politics, including, with Ronald Inglehart, Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism (CUP 2019). @PippaN15