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How Britain's Conservative Party Swept Parts Of England That Leaned Left For Decades


The British elections have reordered politics in the U.K. It was a wipeout for the left-wing Labour Party, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Party comes out stronger than they've been in years. Johnson says this gives him an overwhelming mandate to get Brexit done. John Peet is an editor for The Economist covering politics and Brexit. Welcome back to the program.

JOHN PEET: Yes, hello.

SHAPIRO: First, just how big a victory was this for Boris Johnson?

PEET: Well, it was right at the top end of expectations. I think most of the opinion polls suggested the Conservatives had a significant lead over Labour, but they had narrowed in recent weeks. And there was some talk until yesterday of, possibly, him not having a majority at all.


PEET: So I think it's a pretty strong personal triumph for Boris Johnson.

SHAPIRO: This triumph of the Tory party is such a shift from just a few months ago, when members of the party were changing sides to deny Boris Johnson a majority in parliament. What changed?

PEET: Two things have happened. I mean, the first is that Boris Johnson is a strong believer in Brexit, unlike his predecessor Theresa May, who didn't really have enthusiasm for it. And the other thing that happened that has been critical over the year is that Nigel Farage's Brexit Party, which really sort of emerged at the beginning of the year and started to threaten the Tories, started to diminish because Boris Johnson presented a Brexit deal that even Farage's own voters saw as quite a hard form of Brexit. So towards the end of this election, the Brexit Party more or less imploded, and their votes went to the Tories.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about how Labour got so demolished in areas that had supported the party for a century in some cases.

PEET: Well, I think that's partly about Brexit because those same areas also voted very strongly to leave the European Union back in 2016. And a lot of the voters there say, why haven't we left already? What's going on? And they're not impressed. They were not impressed by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader's ambivalence over Brexit.


PEET: But the other thing, frankly, is enormous doubts about Jeremy Corbyn himself. You know, he presented a very left-wing program with massive spending pledges and threats to sort of, you know, upend capitalism as we know it. And I think a lot of traditional Labour voters, they are from the left. But they just saw this as unrealistic, impossible and a kind of vision of a sort of revolutionary from London rather than a more typical Labour supporter. And he's just lost touch with his ordinary voters.

SHAPIRO: Labour has traditionally been the party of the workers, and many of these areas in northern England that had voted for Labour for generations are working-class, lower economic status. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, comes from a wealthy, privileged background. How do you think he managed to convince these voters that he is one of them or at least that he will side with them?

PEET: Well, to be honest, I think there's a sort of parallel here with what Donald Trump managed to do in the United States.

SHAPIRO: I was going to ask. Yeah.

PEET: What he did - first of all, over Brexit, obviously, he said, look. You guys voted to leave the European Union. I'm the one you need to back in order to deliver Brexit and deliver the future that that promises. But he also managed to, you know, play on the fact that, you know, with Brexit and a promise to spend more money on the National Health Service, the Conservatives would do more to stand up for the ordinary working man and would do more than Labour. And that was enough, I think, to persuade these voters to give a try to Boris Johnson.

Some of them - some of the commentators and the people who know these regions well say that, in effect, they have lent their votes to Boris Johnson, which means that if he doesn't deliver what they want - you know, rising living standards and so on - he could lose those votes in the next election. They're not permanently Tory.

SHAPIRO: You could be describing Wisconsin and Pennsylvania here.

PEET: I think that's exactly the thing, you know? This is a kind of blue-collar vote for the Tories, which is unusual. It could last, but he shouldn't take it for granted.

SHAPIRO: If I could just ask you to look ahead, Boris Johnson is promising he will get Brexit done by January 31. Do you think that's reliable?

PEET: Yes, he will do that. But the problem that that leaves is that's only the first stage. That's the withdrawal. The much more complicated question is the future relationship with the European Union, and that has to be negotiated. And it will be a very long, drawn-out process, and we could easily have trouble with the planned deadline for completing that negotiation, which is the end of next year. That may not be enough time.

SHAPIRO: John Peet of The Economist, thank you.

PEET: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.