National Post (Latest Edition)

U.K. byelection holds lessons for Canada’s Conservati­ves.

- Ginny Roth nick Varley and Ginny Roth is the national practice lead for government relations at Crestview Strategy and a longtime conservati­ve activist who previously worked at Queen’s Park and as party organizer for the Progressiv­e Conservati­ve Party of

Something important happened in England recently. Alongside local elections, there was a byelection in the constituen­cy of Hartlepool on England’s northeast coast. Hartlepool has sent a Labour MP to Westminste­r for the last half century, but on May 6, Conservati­ve Jill Mortimer was elected by a significan­t majority. The Hartlepool result matters not just because incumbent government­s are so rarely rewarded at the ballot box during byelection­s, but because of what it says about broader political trends in the United Kingdom.

Canadian Conservati­ves would be foolish to ignore what has now become a substantiv­e and sustained realignmen­t of the U.K. Conservati­ves’ voter coalition. In fact, the byelection result, and the results of local elections happening at the same time, represent further confirmati­on of an increasing­ly proven theory: the success of the “Leave” side in the Brexit referendum campaign five years ago was not a historic aberration.

The Leave campaign stitched together an entirely new coalition of voters that the Conservati­ves under Prime Minister Boris Johnson have since persuaded to back them en masse. Many former Labour-party voters, often working class and from northern England, have switched allegiance­s, and it seems to be sticking post-brexit.

The dominant internatio­nal and U.K. media narrative, and therefore the one consumed by many Canadians, about the events in the United Kingdom over the last five years goes something like this: there had long been a small group of illiberal Englishmen who distrusted the European Union and wanted to leave it. These men stoked public interest, pressured then-prime minister David Cameron to put the matter to a vote and, through a combinatio­n of unsavoury campaign tactics and more than a hint of racism, convinced a few too many dim-witted British people to vote to leave the EU.

Cameron resigned after his referendum loss, and new prime minister Theresa May struggled to follow through on the referendum result because the country deeply regretted its error. The Conservati­ve party’s decision to remove May and replace her with Johnson would make no difference because, so the narrative went, he too would, and initially did, struggle to make a break from the EU. But this narrative has almost completely fallen apart.

Despite the prediction­s of the U.K., Canadian and internatio­nal commentari­at, Johnson romped to a general election victory in December 2019 by committing to seal the deal and “get Brexit done.” He then successful­ly negotiated to leave the EU. Johnson and his party continue to dominate in public opinion polls, as he executes his campaign commitment­s and delivers on a world-leading vaccine roll out.

Ultimately, the narrative fell apart because it was always wrong. From the very beginning, pressure mounted on Cameron to hold the Brexit referendum not because of some small-minded nationalis­ts, but because British people demanded it via the ballot box: the Euroscepti­c U.K. Independen­ce party was surging in every European, local and national election.

While many of the prominent faces of the Leave campaign were Conservati­ve, many of those who voted Leave were traditiona­l Labour supporters. As the Leave campaigner­s understood, the people demanding to leave the European Union were united not by partisansh­ip, or even ideology, but by a shared interest in taking control over their shared economic and cultural destiny.

Akin to the much-discussed rust-belt voters in the United States, British people outside of the major urban centres felt they were getting a bad deal from the small-l liberal obsession with a particular version of free trade and free markets, metropolit­an values, budget austerity and open borders. This centrist consensus denied and suppressed the lived experience of ordinary people outside of London. Frustratio­n with this liberal worldview cut across deeply entrenched party lines, just as it has in most wealthy Western countries.

Johnson has proven able to translate the energy of the Leave campaign into a remarkably successful governing mandate. Through Johnson’s blend of cultural conservati­sm, patriotic positivity about the future, as well a focus on regional economic developmen­t (or as Johnson calls it, “levelling up”), the U.K. Conservati­ves have appealed to voters not just in more southern, suburban areas where they have historical­ly been strong, but in what was long considered the “red wall,” where working-class voters supported Labour candidates in every election over decades.

It would be easy to explain the byelection result in Hartlepool by pointing to the weakness of Keir Starmer, the new Labour leader, or the success of the government’s vaccine roll out, but those factors alone do not explain the broader trend. This realignmen­t is happening because of values. Blue-collar English voters no longer feel as though Labour sees the world the way they do, or agrees with them about what a better future looks like. Very simply, the Conservati­ves are succeeding because they have filled the values gap left by Labour.

Canada is no doubt different. There is no Brexit question. The Liberal party is a strong centre-left presence with enough savvy to occasional­ly apply a populist lens to its policies, particular­ly its spending commitment­s. But the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbati­ng worrying economic trends, the left is increasing­ly distracted by culture war virtue signalling and the status quo Conservati­ve voting base simply is not big enough to elect a majority government. It might be easy to tune out internatio­nal politics with so much going on at home, but if you are a Canadian Conservati­ve who wants to win, you ought not to.

Nick Varley is a former elected Conservati­ve councillor in Chiltern District and served as head of ground campaign for Vote Leave during the Brexit referendum. He is now vice-president of Crestview Strategy’s U.K. office.

 ?? LEE SMITH / REUTERS ?? British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and newly elected Conservati­ve MP for Hartlepool Jill Mortimer.
Her election says a lot about broader political trends in the U.K., Ginny Roth and Nick Varley write.
LEE SMITH / REUTERS British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and newly elected Conservati­ve MP for Hartlepool Jill Mortimer. Her election says a lot about broader political trends in the U.K., Ginny Roth and Nick Varley write.

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