He smashed Labour’s so-called ‘Red Wall’ on Thursday – but now Britain’s Boris Johnson must pick up the pieces. From Dudley in the West Midlands to Sedgefield in England’s North East, former socialist strongholds turned blue as Johnson’s Conservatives swept the board. Brexit undoubtedly played a pivotal role, but honouring the UK’s EU exit vote won’t alone sustain his newfound working-class support. The Prime Minister must fulfil a raft of socially-minded policy pledges, and fast.
“I am humbled that you have put your trust in me,” Mr Johnson said warmly to his party faithful on Friday morning, though the message wasn’t for them. It was for the hundreds of thousands of first-time Tory voters, residents in the seats that once formed Labour’s now ruined Red Wall – a string of supposedly safe Labour constituencies running northward from the Midlands. By and large, they backed Brexit in 2016, and in Boris they see a leader who will fulfil their decision to leave.
But if the Conservatives are to cling to this new support, they must deliver far more than just the UK’s departure from Europe. Within his first 100 days, Mr Johnson must make clear his government’s shift away from the Tories’ traditional, patrician roots and towards the political centre-ground.
The National Health Service is of particular concern to the Prime Minister. Keen to head off Labour’s promised NHS spending splurge, Johnson says he’ll enshrine in law an annual funding boost of £34bn, train ten of thousands of new nurses, and build dozens of hospitals. Attractive pledges which no doubt resonated on the doorstep, but critics are not convinced. Of the 40 new hospitals promised, just six have had funding committed – and construction is underway at none. The yearly investment guarantee, though welcome, won’t cover the NHS’s chronic underfunding, experts say also.
Most worrying, however, is the gradual nature of Johnson’s proposals. Britain’s health service is in the throes of crisis. New figures published last week revealed English hospitals’ worst A&E winter performance on record – building new facilities and recruiting for the future, while prudent, does little to address the NHS’s urgent overstretch. Swift action by Number 10 is needed to alleviate the worst of winter’s burden on the health service.
Likewise, Mr Johnson will soon be under pressure to tackle the UK’s shameful social care situation. In July, the Prime Minister promised to publish a “clear plan” of action after successive Tory governments failed to reform the system – but details are yet to be released. Cross-party dialogue will be established to address the sector’s critical shortcomings, the Conservatives have said, but with Opposition parties reeling from their beating at the ballot box, that process could be protracted.
On criminal justice reform, Johnson will feel more sure of decisive action. Empowered by its parliamentary majority, the government’s tough-on-crime agenda can get underway in earnest. The sentences for sexual and violent crimes will be reworked, removing the current provision that allows for automatic early release.
The issue seized headlines last month, when a convicted terrorist murdered two individuals near London Bridge. Released after serving half of his sentence for involvement in a bomb-plot, Usman Khan stabbed and killed Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt in a frenzied, unprovoked knife attack on November 29. In response, Johnson pledged to overhaul the UK’s penal system – a move rubbished as “draconian” knee-jerk policy-making by Merritt’s family.
With immigration policy, the government will hope to be on safer ground. Its much-teased Australian-style points-based system will rank foreign workers according to their professional abilities – and should, in theory, reduce the nation’s net migration. The scheme played well with electoral focus groups, insiders say, but many question whether it can make a seamless shift from Australia’s job market to the UK. Also, given the Prime Minister’s hesitance to enforce a cap on skilled workers, or in other sectors, like hospitality and construction, some analysts have expressed doubts on the scheme’s ability to meaningfully bring numbers down.
Johnson will care little for these critics – emboldened by his electoral bounce, the policy will shortly start its journey to the statute book, as will new legislation on schools funding and better rural phone signal.