‘Everyone is shocked’, the insider told me, in a text exchange a few days after the recent British election, as the scale of the defeat began to sink in. Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party had won 360-plus seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, on 43.6 per cent of the vote. The Tories had gone to the public with a simple message: get Brexit done, because it was voted for in the referendum. Labour went to them with a dog’s breakfast of a program: negotiate the least-worst deal from the EU for Brexit, then take it to a confirmatory referendum, at which Labour would campaign against the deal it had struck and urge a vote to remain in the EU. The sheer asymmetry of the offers, combined with the Tories’ real or apparent abandonment of austerity budgeting in favour of a sort of centre-right ‘dirigisme’ heavy on infrastructure spending, made the result a likely foregone conclusion. But the polls started to narrow in the final week, and politics has become so unpredictable in the last decade that commentators of both Left and Right began to hedge their bets: Labour had a massive canvassing presence; Boris had made one gaffe after another; northern Leave Labour voters would ultimately stick to the party; it was winter; Tory voters were older (this writer engaged in some of this himself). The result, when it came in, shamed us all – had a touch of the old Monty Python sketch of an election-night broadcast when the Sensible Party went up against the Silly Party. The simple line – vote up the referendum result purely, simply, no matter the lies and scheming that went into it or the consequences of the result – was the winner.
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