The Guardian view on the 2019 election result: a new political landscape | Editorial

Boris Johnson has redrawn the map and Labour and the Lib Dems are in disarray. Brexit will pass and Scottish independence will move to the centre of the stage

Facts are sacred. So any response to the 2019 general election must start with the fact that Boris Johnson’s Conservative party is its undisputed victor. With 365 seats, up 48 on the last parliament, the Tories have a majority of 80. This allows Mr Johnson to govern for a full term with a working majority, something the Conservatives have not achieved for 32 years. It is a party triumph, because the Tories have recovered their claim to be Britain’s most enduring governing force. It is also a personal triumph for Mr Johnson, who sensed the opportunity and seized it with enormous effect.

Other facts also matter. The first-past-the-post electoral system means Mr Johnson polled 44% of the votes and took 56% of the seats. In a Brexit-dominated contest, parties that want to leave the European Union polled only 47%, while parties supporting a second referendum polled 51%. Britain is a very divided country. Mr Johnson would be wise to take account of these facts too. He should remember the words of Edmund Burke: that magnanimity is often the truest political wisdom.

Yet Mr Johnson now has a mandate to complete the business of the 2016 referendum and to take Britain out of the EU. He has fought and won that battle. But he has not yet won the battle on the terms under which the UK will trade with the EU. On this, he has neither defined his goal nor negotiated a deal to reach it. It is hard to believe he will do so, as promised, within 12 months. This is too important an issue to be imprisoned by a timetable. Mr Johnson should accept a delay if necessary. He now has the authority to defy any objectors within his party.

The biggest loser of 2019 is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. The party’s 203 seats is its lowest total since 1935. In 18 years, Labour has lost more than 50% of the seats it won in 2001. The Tories swept through constituencies in the Midlands and the north of England that Labour has rarely lost in its history: seats like Bishop Auckland, Great Grimsby and Workington. But the losses were nationwide. In Wales, Wrexham now has its first Conservative MP since the first world war. In Scotland, Labour lost six of its seven seats. In the south, it lost Ipswich and Stroud. After nine years of divisive and troubled Tory rule, Labour could manage only one solitary gain anywhere in the UK.

This abject performance reflects mistrust in Mr Corbyn, lack of belief in some of Labour’s manifesto pledges, and divisions over Brexit. But the election was not lost during the campaign. At its roots lie what has become an increasingly unstable alliance of Labour’s left and centre, its remain and leave electorates, and its middle-class and working-class bases. In the 1980s, 80% of Labour voters were manual workers and their families. Today, that figure is around 40%. Mr Corbyn has shown himself unwilling and incapable of unifying that volatile coalition. He is right to go. Labour must face up to its failings and choose a different sort of leader now.

This is all the more important because the Liberal Democrats will not lead an alternative. Jo Swinson’s party had its chance and blew it. Its share of the vote went up more than the other UK-wide parties. But Ms Swinson fought a flawed campaign and lost her seat. The question facing all those to the left of the Tory party is whether they can or wish to find common ground and cooperate. If they do not, and especially if Mr Johnson changes the voting rules and boundaries, this 2019 result could be the shape of things to come.

After and because of Brexit, the biggest challenge facing Mr Johnson is in Scotland. The SNP took 45% of the vote, up eight points. The Tories and Labour fell back. Nicola Sturgeon has now demanded the right to call an independence referendum. Mr Johnson intends to refuse. He would be foolish to let himself be cast as the hammer of the Scots. He needs to reach out to Scotland too, with money and powers. If he does not, his era will be dominated by threats to the union, especially as Northern Ireland has now elected more nationalists than unionists for the first time.

The prime minister implied on Friday that he understands the transformed political landscape. Reiterated commitments on NHS investment, on more teachers and police, and on carbon emissions, may mean he grasps that the Tory electorate changed radically this week, and that public spending is key to retaining it. The one-nation and healing rhetoric may herald a new kind of Toryism. Yet such populism also opens the way for attacks on judges, human rights and the BBC. Where migrants fit in the one nation of which Mr Johnson spoke remains to be seen. Strikingly, the nation he invoked was one that stretched from Woking to Workington, not from Woking to Wick or Warrenpoint. Mr Johnson has won a great victory. But his problems are only just beginning.



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