In 2017 the stage was set for a Brexit election, but hospitals and schools ended up swaying voters’ minds. The consequence has been nearly three years of nothing but Brexit. 2019 will be different. It is a Brexit election and the fallout of who wins could be radical on either side.
When Theresa May stood out in front of Downing Street on a sunny Spring day and called a General Election, the country was initially stunned. Soon, pundits took to the airwaves exclaiming that the Conservatives would bring home a majority in the hundreds. Somewhere between the spin of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘Strong and Stable leadership’, the Westminster bubble was convinced that the 2017 General Election would be simple – an angry public wanted Brexit done, and Theresa was the strong leader to do just that.
Nothing else seemingly mattered. Governing had become a sideshow to negotiating the perfect Brexit. This was obviously what people wanted.
Except they didn’t. A disastrous Tory campaign saw the party lose its majority, with a Labour Party who focused on inequality and schools gaining 40% of the vote. People seemingly wanted to talk about something else.
When we think about it, it makes total sense. In 2017, Brexit seemed such an inevitability that there really was no reason to vote along the leave or remain lines. Both Labour and the Conservatives were promising to leave the European Union, Parliament had triggered Article 50 with a comfortable majority, and the result still so new that few had found the time to process and develop a coherent reaction.
This time is different.
It is now coming up to four years since the UK voted to leave the European Union – two extensions, three ‘meaningful votes’, countless Letwin-inspired amendments, and the formation of new political parties led by old faces and the UK is yet to leave. I’ve always hated attempts to pin individuals into ‘voter type’ boxes. I cringe every time I hear the phrases ‘Workington Man’ or ‘Worchester Woman’. So then, you’ll excuse me as I now indulge in a healthy dose of hypocrisy and categorise our 2019 voters into three broad camps.
Firstly, we have the many who put their faith in the ballot in 2016 to express a will for a change in direction. This group feel inevitably feel let down. Brexit, a concept which outgrew its original brief of leaving the European Union and become a cultural phenomenon in its own right, is under threat to them. At this election, Brexit must be delivered.
Then we have others, and I suspect this is majority of people, for whom Brexit has become an annoyance – a roadblock which has stagnated public debate and brought politics into people’s every day lives in a way relatively unseen in British political history. Their desire outcome in 2019 is to move on from Brexit in some way.
Lastly we have those for whom Brexit has become the cultural, political and economic threat of their times – the epitome of a country in decline. After countless hours protesting this election must, for this group, stop Brexit.
Brexit will define this election. Be it out of an impassioned desire to deliver it or end it, or simply an annoyance to end the debate all together, the British people will go to the polls knowing that after all of these years closure is needed.
But that doesn’t mean other issues will fall onto the wayside. Quite the opposite. 2019 has become a race of who can spend the most money, best run the NHS and improve standards of living. For the Tories, gone are the days of discussing job creation and fiscal responsibility. For Labour, desperate to avoid a Brexit issue which has paralysed them, a new era of radical change must be brought in.
Politicians on all sides are racing to ensure issues from education, health and even broadband are addressed. Forests of magic money trees seem to have been found to solve crises of a by-gone era of austerity that no party, with the possible exception of the Liberal Democrats, wishes to associate itself with.
This is of course especially true of a Tory party haunted from a 2017 election which centred on one leader and two slogans. Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson won’t allow Labour to take control of the debate around hospitals and costs of living again – Brexit must take precedence while other issues are neutralised. It is why Boris has been relentlessly selling his domestic policies. It’s a simple message – yes, get Brexit done, but look we can govern on all of these other things too.
For Labour, they know Brexit has not been their USP but that it does matter to their core voters – for both Labour leavers in the North and remainers in the South. Their response? An even more radical programme of change from 2017 – a Green New Deal aimed to ride the green wave all the way to Downing Street, an NHS ‘Rescue Plan’ and public ownership of pretty much every amenity possible. For them, the only way to avoid the uncomfortable Brexit issue is to create as much noise as possible elsewhere.
In these two campaign strategies we find the great irony of Brexit. An issue which was paralysed our Parliament, disrupted our politics, redefined political axis and become synonymous with the country on the global stage might just focus our politicians minds on other issues. Both parties know that Brexit will form the base of their 2019 support bases but winning over other voters will also require that extra icing of improving healthcare, standards of living or saving the planet. After four years of Brexit, both sides are desperate to prove that they can end the drama, and then govern.