Running for the United Kingdom Conservative leadership, Boris Johnson claims that his party faces “extinction” if it fails to deliver Brexit. Political rhetoric being what it is, this could be dismissed as self-interested hyperbole.
But while Johnson may exaggerate, the threat he envisages isn’t conjured out of thin air.
There’s ample evidence that many habitual Conservative voters are annoyed with their party. Actually, make that extremely annoyed.
In the U.K. segment of the recent European elections, the Conservatives finished a distant fifth, polling less than nine per cent of the vote. First place went to the newly formed Brexit Party, an entity that didn’t even exist nine months ago.
En route from nowhere to first, the Brexit Party capitalized on the disillusionment of many rank-and-file Conservatives. As those unhappy voters see it, despite being in government at Westminster, their party has failed dismally to deliver on the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union.
And given the antipathy towards Brexit on the part of much of the Conservative establishment – including many Conservative members of parliament – some suspect there’s more involved than mere incompetence or innate difficulty. The word ‘betrayal’ gets used from time to time.
It would be easy to dismiss the European elections as inconsequential, a mere protest. When it comes to the real thing – voting in a U.K. general election – the absconding voters will come home.
Perhaps. But how many?
Two recent polls illustrate the scope of the potential Conservative problem.
A May 28-30 survey by Opinium puts the Brexit Party in the lead when respondents are asked about general election preferences. At 26 per cent, they’re nine points ahead of the third-place Conservatives. And a seat calculator estimates that this would translate into 306 Brexit Party MPs – a mere 20 seats short of an absolute majority!
The latest YouGov numbers (June 5-6) produce almost identical results. The Brexit Party is first at 26 per cent and the Conservatives are fourth at 18.
For the Conservatives, a general election result in this neighbourhood would be catastrophic. To borrow Johnson’s terminology, it would be akin to an extinction event.
The U.K. Conservatives are an old party, dating back to the 1830s. Historically, they’ve been extremely successful. So the suggestion of mortal danger seems far-fetched.
Canadians, however, have seen this story before.
From 211 seats in 1984, the federal Progressive Conservatives were reduced to two in 1993 and the party dissolved 10 years later. As the establishment lost touch with a huge chunk of its regular base, an upstart alternative (Reform) vacuumed up the disillusioned voters.
The bottom line is merciless. Even long-established, seemingly permanent, parties can be swept away if they ignore their base.
Meanwhile, across the North Sea, a contrasting lesson is being taught.
Following the June 5 election, Mette Frederiksen is set to become Denmark’s youngest prime minister. In significant part, this is due to her reconnecting her Social Democrats with the immigration skepticism of the party’s traditional working-class base.
Small, relatively homogenous and attached to the concepts of social solidarity and a common identity, Denmark is an awkward fit for the prevailing orthodoxies of globalization and multiculturalism. Many Danes – including progressive ones – aren’t buying.
Although liberal in sexual matters, the Danish appetite for other forms of diversity is limited. To quote English journalist Andrew Brown, “No one is allowed to diverge too far from the norms of society, whether this is because they are too rich or too foreign.”
Frederiksen has been blunt about the shift she’s engineered in her party.
There’s this: “You are not a bad person just because you are worried about immigration.”
And this: “For me, it is becoming increasingly clear that the price of unregulated globalization, mass immigration and the free movement of labour is paid for by the lower classes.”
Moving from rhetoric to specific policies, Frederiksen’s Social Democrats have adopted positions that would render most Canadian commentators apoplectic.
For instance, there should be a cap on “non-Western immigrants;” immigrants receiving benefits should be required to work 37 hours a week; and the goal of asylum policy should be repatriation.
And so on.
As for the U.K., the next six months will be an interesting example of history in the making.
Will the Conservatives reconnect with their disaffected base?
Or will they go the way of their erstwhile Canadian brethren?
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.
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