The country has moved on from Brexit and won’t be distracted by ‘culture wars’ – where does this leave Johnson and the ‘Red Wall’?
It’s not always greener on the other side. At least that is the conclusion of voters in Wakefield after three years of Conservative rule.
The seat, which in 2019 flipped to the Tories for the first time since 1931, has now returned to Labour.
The by-election was called after the MP elected in 2019, Imran Ahmad Khan, was convicted of sexual assault. Khan had been suspended from the Conservative whip in 2021 pending the outcome of the prosecution, and this scandal undoubtedly played a role in Labour’s political revival in the West Yorkshire seat.
But other factors are relevant too. In particular, Boris Johnson’s inability to find a replacement for Brexit – the campaign that converted much of the ‘Red Wall’ to the Conservatives.
Mirroring other Red Wall seats – former industrial areas in the north of England, the Midlands and north Wales – Wakefield voted comfortably in favour of Brexit, by a margin of 66.4% to 33.6%.
Following three years of parliamentary prevarications, Wakefield and other similar constituencies wanted to ‘Get Brexit Done’, as Johnson promised.
Brexit had herded the electorate into new political tribes, with many traditional Labour voters supporting a cause that had been largely championed by the hard-right. Brexit arguably became a religion – dominating political debate and polarising voters into two aggressively opposed camps.
Through years of national soul-searching – refracted through the lens of Brexit – the campaign to leave the EU morphed from the technocratic to the emotional, coming to define the personal and political identities of all those invested in its outcome.
Prior to the UK’s departure from the EU, polls showed little change in retrospective support for Leave and Remain, with the nation pretty much split down the middle.
With the figurehead of Vote Leave placed in charge of the Conservatives in July 2019, Brexit was a unifying force for the party – coalescing these voters under its flag. A few months later, in December 2019, Labour lost 25% of those who had voted for Brexit in 2016 after voting for Labour in 2010, along with 45 Red Wall constituencies.
Now, this has all changed.
Johnson’s personal popularity has collapsed, owing to his ‘Partygate’ lies and anaemic response to the cost of living crisis.
After seizing a host of Labour seats in 2019, the Prime Minister acknowledged that local voters had “lent” their votes to the Conservatives. “I, and we, will never take your support for granted. I will make it my mission to work night and day, to work flat-out to prove you right in voting for me this time, and to earn your support in the future,” he said.
Three years on, this trust has not been repaid – at least in the eyes of voters in Wakefield.
The apex of this political conundrum for Johnson is the waning potency of Brexit and the issues that it evokes. In YouGov’s tracker of the most important issues facing the country, according to voters, ‘Britain leaving the EU’ is selected by 19% of people – down from 65% on the eve of the election in 2019 – while ‘immigration and asylum’ is selected by 24%.
The Prime Minister has never been wildly popular, contrary to the myths perpetuated by the Conservative Party, having merely been adopted as a Brexit battering ram. Now that Brexit is ‘done’, his usefulness is increasingly unclear, including to those who supported him in 2019.
In a poll conducted by Omnisis for Byline Times in April, 51% of Leave voters surveyed said that the ‘Partygate’ scandal has made them less likely to vote Conservative at the next election, while a clear majority, 63%, no longer trust Johnson to tell the truth.
As for the most important issues facing the country currently, 65% of people opt for ‘the economy’, followed at a distance by ‘health’ (35%). These are the issues of the day, on which Johnson and his party are floundering.
In an Omnisis poll for Byline Times in May, before Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a new package of cost of living support, an overwhelming 81% of those surveyed said they were dissatisfied by the Government’s response to the cost of living crisis.
As of now, 56% of Conservative voters believe that the Government is handling the economy badly, while 57% think the same about the party’s handling of healthcare.
And on this front, Brexit is increasingly a hindrance to the Conservatives. This newspaper’s Omnisis polling in May found that 67% of people asked believe that leaving the EU has made their cost of living higher – a belief shared by 48% of Leave voters – while 64% of people think that Brexit has been negative for the UK.
These perceptions are only likely to harden after this week’s Resolution Foundation report, showing that the north-east of England – one of the country’s poorest regions and also one of its most avidly pro-Brexit – will be hit hardest by the UK’s departure from the EU.
In contrast, “there is early evidence that London is, in fact, adapting to Brexit faster than other regions,” the report says.
His unlawful suspension of Parliament in 2019 is now informing the Prime Minister’s last-ditch attempt to save his political career, argues Sam Bright
So, while Jacob Rees-Mogg cautioned that the benefits of Brexit could take “50 years” to materialise – a theory seemingly accepted by most Leave voters – they appear not so tolerant now that the country is forced to trudge through the economic quagmire on the long road to finding those “sunlit uplands”.
There seems little evidence either for the supposed cultural and democratic benefits of Brexit. The Daily Mail carried a front page on the day before the referendum, painting a stark choice for the nation between “Lies. Greedy elites. Or a great future outside a broken, dying Europe”.
With Johnson’s Vote Leave Government tainted by accusations of corruption and mendacity – rewriting the constitutional rulebook for its own ends – the anti-establishment promises of Brexit seem far from reality.
Brexit also appears to be a strategic distraction for the Conservatives. With the country clamouring for policies to solve real-world issues around jobs, wages, bills, and public services, the Conservative Party is still waging a Brexit ‘culture war’ – attempting to rehash the playbook of the previous election through ‘anti-woke’ identity conflicts.
Labour has been the beneficiary of a Conservative collapse in Wakefield; the Liberal Democrats in Tiverton and Honiton, as well as previous by-elections in Chesham and Amersham, and North Shropshire.
The question is whether these two opposition parties can capitalise on Boris Johnson’s weakness to such an extent that they have a chance of forging a coalition after the next election. Or if, less probably, Labour can win a majority of its own.
In the Red Wall, that still seems uncertain. Labour’s results were unconvincing in these seats during the recent local elections, although Westminster-level polling has suggested that the Conservatives could lose all but three of their Red Wall seats when a general election rolls around.
Either way, Labour has been given a second chance to prove its calibre in Wakefield, while the Conservatives are forced to wrestle with the reality that the tag-team of Johnson and Brexit has finally lost its golden touch.
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