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Johnson’s promise of political stability is rash


In some ways, it’s a relief. Since the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, British politics has been a rollercoaster ride. That same year, Nigel Farage’s UK Independence party gave the Conservatives an epoch-making scare, ensuring that then prime minister David Cameron would hold a vote on Brexit.

Three general elections later, the nation has at last been allowed to deal with its political motion sickness. Boris Johnson enjoys the first decent majority for a governing party since 2005 — the first for the Conservatives since 1987. This is both a change and a rest.

Along with the first skirmishes of a potential culture war, it had begun to look as though the UK had also imported American-style permanent campaigning. Incessant elections became the norm, with either a public vote every few months or a party’s membership choosing a new leader as the failures were defenestrated. The ideological capture of the two main parties by entryists and obsessives has been widely lamented. But other effects have been pernicious too.

You campaign in poetry and govern in prose. But there has been little space in the past few years for the prosaic business of governing and making good on promises. Without the discipline of having pledges measured against delivery, the poetic promises made by parties became less realistic with every fresh contest. Comparing the latest Conservative manifesto to a haiku may be an exaggeration, but it was brief and unspecific enough to raise eyebrows, while Labour produced an epic of unrealisable bribes.

In the postmortems on Labour’s failure, this central question — credibility — is in danger of being overlooked. The scale and number of the party’s promises made the cost of the whole package seem eye-watering to thrifty voters. As damaging, the activist left’s group-hug allowed the leadership to forget that the wider electorate judges a party not just on values but on “valence” — the political scientists’ word for perceived ability to deliver. Labour should use this unexpected quietus to gain this perspective.

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It would show them why Mr Johnson’s slogan, “Get Brexit done”, worked not just as an appeal to frustrated Leavers. It offered voters the chance to delegate the business of running the country, which they could see had stalled as parliamentary politics had become exhaustingly frenetic and inconclusive. The Tories wanted to take charge, to apply the healing balm of Johnsonian optimism to the UK’s bruises. Whether you or I believe it is snake oil or miracle cure, voters accepted in impressive numbers. We have yet to see whether they will (outside Scotland, where the timetable of relentless elections continues) be let off all this dratted democracy for a while.

But as the dust settles, the country has a chance to resume one healthy element of its customary relationship to any government — standing back with arms folded to see how much it will deliver in the next four to five years. The electorate will be able to measure Mr Johnson’s ambitions to “unleash Britain’s potential” against reality. With parliamentary deadlock at an end and opposition parties south of the border cowed, the prime minister will have nowhere to hide from his new coalition of voters, many of whom backed the Conservative party for the first time. But here we come to the hitch in his plan to deliver the country from political turmoil — it is probably here to stay.

On re-entering 10 Downing Street, Mr Johnson promised to work hard to keep faith with those in the Midlands, the north of England and Wales who had only “lent” him their votes. “I will never take your support for granted,” he said, imagining the moment staunch Labour voters had felt their hands quiver over the ballot paper.

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This nod to the decline of traditional voting patterns conceals a fundamental challenge: the Conservative election victory is not enough to prevent further political jolts. As a new book, Electoral Shocks: The Volatile Voter in a Turbulent World, describes, external events and internal changes to British politics have accelerated a disruption that was already under way. Turbulence is likely to be increased by further, unforeseeable shocks, and the authors, academics behind the British Election Study, write that this will make political outcomes ever more unpredictable.

There’s a stark warning here to Mr Johnson, who is hoping to cement his new support base, but also to his change-hungry advisers with their dreams of transforming the country and to the British public as well, who may think they voted for a period of stability — free of what Mr Johnson called “the wrangling”.

None of it can be guaranteed. Events will intervene. And Mr Johnson’s victory at the hands of Labour voters is just the latest evidence that we no longer react to shocks in the ways we once did. That rollercoaster ride may not be over yet.

miranda.green@ft.com



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