The inside story of how Boris Johnson won the UK election
Conservative election campaign began not six weeks ago but when Boris Johnson became PM
In his final rally before Thursday’s election, Boris Johnson thanked Conservative activists for working so hard in the difficult conditions of a December campaign. He told them that he had not wished for this election, but that it was forced upon him by the intransigence of a parliament that was obstructing his efforts to deliver Brexit.
In fact, MPs had voted in October to give his Withdrawal Agreement Bill its second reading but rejected his breakneck timetable to debate the legislation. And Johnson’s election campaign began, not six weeks ago, but on the day he entered Downing Street as prime minister on July 24th.
His first speech outside No 10 carried the core message of the Conservative campaign, a promise to deliver Brexit and to draw a line under a decade of austerity by putting more money into health, education and police. He stressed the fact that his was a new administration, and his own primacy within it.
“The work that begins immediately behind that black door and though I am today building a great team of men and women I will take personal responsibility for the change I want to see. Never mind the backstop – the buck stops here,” he said.
Johnson reinforced the impression that he was making a clean break with Theresa May’s government by announcing a more comprehensive cabinet purge than Harold Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives in 1962. More noteworthy than any of his cabinet appointments was Johnson’s backroom team of former vote leave operatives, led by his new chief of staff Dominic Cummings and communications director Lee Cain.
At the same time he appointed Isaac Levido (35), an Australian political strategist, director of politics and campaign at Conservative campaign headquarters (CCHQ). A protege of Lynton Crosby, who worked on Johnson’s successful mayoral campaigns in London, Levido helped to mastermind Australian prime minister Scott Morrison’s surprise victory in a general election last May.
When the results of the exit poll predicting a Conservative landslide were announced on Thursday night, staff at CCHQ chanted “Oh, Isaac Levido” to the tune used by Labour supporters to greet Jeremy Corbyn. Levido was the undisputed leader of the campaign, chairing a strategy meeting with senior staffers at 5.40am every day, and directing polling and messaging from a central pod at the headquarters.
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A crucial factor in Morrison’s success in Australia was the relative unpopularity of his opponent Bill Shorten, and Levido saw a similar opportunity in Corbyn’s historically poor ratings.
Perhaps the only element of the campaign message that was missing from Johnson’s speech on the steps of Downing Street was the slogan Get Brexit Done. That emerged from the focus groups Levido and Cummings both saw as essential to understanding the voters the Conservatives needed to persuade and finding the right language to reach them.
Levido’s strategy was to identify 50 marginal seats the Conservatives wanted to capture and 50 others the party needed to defend. Most of the targets were part of the so-called Red Wall of Labour-held seats in leave-voting areas of the midlands and the north of England.
Intensive polling and focus groups in these seats helped the Conservative team to target messages to each constituency, and to decide where best to deploy Johnson and in what context.
Before Levido could work his magic, however, Johnson had to call an election which, under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, required a two-thirds majority in parliament.
A few days after entering office he ruled out calling a general election before the October 31st deadline for leaving the EU.
“The British people voted in 2015, in 2016, in 2017,” he said. “What they want us to do is deliver on their mandate, come out of the EU on October 31st. They don’t want another electoral event, they don’t want a referendum, they don’t want a general election. They want us to deliver.”
Yet in early September, as MPs prepared to vote to block the prime minister from taking Britain out of the EU without a deal on October 31st, he said such a move would oblige him to seek a general election. In their first major miscalculation since taking office, Johnson and his team assumed that Corbyn could not reject the offer of a general election he had been calling for every week for the past two years.
The Labour leader had led protests outside Westminster days before when Johnson announced he was proroguing parliament for five weeks, a decision that was later reversed by the supreme court. But he was not prepared to take the prime minister’s bait and voted against the election, along with other opposition parties.
Trapped in Downing Street and forbidden by law to leave the EU at the end of October, a deadline he had promised to die in a ditch over, Johnson doubled down on his portrayal of himself as a tribune of the people faced with a parliament determined to block Brexit
“A general election isn’t a plaything for a prime minister to avoid his obligations, to dodge scrutiny, or renege on his commitments. He has committed to renegotiate Brexit – but where is it? Where is the plan? Where are the proposals?” Corbyn said.
“If he has a Brexit plan – be it no-deal or this new mystery proposed deal we are yet to see any detail of – then he should put it before the people in a public vote, a referendum or a general election and seek a mandate from them.”
Johnson expelled 21 Conservative MPs, including former chancellors Philip Hammond and Ken Clarke, for voting to block a no-deal Brexit. A few days later his brother Jo left the cabinet saying he could no longer reconcile “family loyalty and the national interest”.
Die in a ditch
Trapped in Downing Street and forbidden by law to leave the EU at the end of October, a deadline he had promised to die in a ditch over, Johnson doubled down on his portrayal of himself as a tribune of the people faced with a parliament determined to block Brexit.
But he also took the first steps towards a new Brexit deal, securing the DUP’s backing for a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. The party drew the line at a separate customs regime for Northern Ireland, but after a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar outside Liverpool in mid-October, Johnson agreed to replace the backstop with an arrangement that would see the North following EU regulations and customs rules after Brexit.
The EU endorsed the revised withdrawal agreement, and Johnson brought it back to Westminster where its second reading was passed by 329 to 299, a majority of 30, but they rejected the timetable.
Johnson tabled another motion calling for a general election on December 12th, knowing it would fail. But now Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson came to his rescue, saying her party would not vote for an election on December 12th but would vote for it if it was held on December 9th. Buoyed by a surge in the polls, Swinson calculated that her party, like the Conservatives, would benefit from holding the election before Brexit was resolved.
The SNP, which faces weeks of embarrassment next month when former leader Alex Salmond goes on trial for alleged sexual offences, also had an interest in holding the election early.
Many Labour MPs opposed the plan, fearing that it would end in disaster for their party. Yet Corbyn was confident of success, and Labour joined the other opposition parties in giving Johnson his December 12th election.
Meanwhile, the fact that Johnson had negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the EU reassured wavering Conservative remain voters that they could vote Tory without risking a no-deal Brexit
Worse still, Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg went on LBC radio to say that victims of the Grenfell Tower fire might have survived if they had shown “common sense” by ignoring fire service instructions to remain in their flats.
Labour dominated the news agenda in the early days of the campaign, capturing public attention by promising free high-speed broadband for every home and business in the country, and accusing Johnson of preparing to “sell off” the NHS in a trade deal with Donald Trump.
Johnson won a major boost when Nigel Farage, under pressure from donors and other Brexiteers, announced that his Brexit Party would not contest seats won by the Conservatives in 2017. The Conservatives feared that the Brexit Party would split the leave vote and force them to defend seats in rural England that would otherwise be safe.
Farage refused to stand down in Labour-held seats targeted by the Tories but he had already undermined his party’s message to the point where it was no longer an obstacle in the way of Johnson’s success.
Meanwhile, the fact that Johnson had negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the EU reassured wavering Conservative remain voters that they could vote Tory without risking a no-deal Brexit.
Around the same time, former Labour MPs Ian Austin and John Woodcock denounced Corbyn’s leadership, and called on Labour supporters to vote Conservative. Levido and his team used recordings of a tearful Austin to drive home the message in marginal seats that traditional Labour voters could not afford to put Corbyn in Downing Street.
Launching an almost policy-free manifesto in Telford on November 24th, Johnson framed the choice in the election as one between a “one-nation” Conservative majority government and a hung parliament that would leave Corbyn depending on the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon to remain in office.
Labour had a detailed manifesto packed with policies and promises to cut living costs, improve public services and shift wealth and power towards “the many, not the few”. But as the campaign went on, canvassers found that voters did not trust Labour to deliver on its promises, partly because there were so many of them.
Just over two weeks away from polling day, Corbyn had his worst day of the campaign when chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis questioned his fitness for office because of his handling of allegations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. In a BBC interview with Andrew Neil that evening, Corbyn declined four times to apologise to British Jews for the way he handled the issue.
That interview was a car crash, but at least Corbyn subjected himself to Neil’s interrogation, something Johnson refused to do.
“There is no law, no supreme court ruling that can force Mr Johnson to participate in a BBC leaders’ interview. But the prime minister of our nation will, at times, have to stand up to President Trump, President Putin, President Xi of China. So it was surely not expecting too much that he spend half an hour standing up to me,” Neil said in a three-minute address to the camera.
Johnson ignored Neil’s criticism, just as he paid no attention to Dave Merritt, who accused the prime minister of trying to use for political advantage his son Jack’s death in a terrorist attack at London Bridge.
And when four-year-old Jack Williment-Barr was pictured lying on a pile of coats on the floor of a hospital emergency department with an oxygen mask next to him, Johnson refused to look at the photograph when asked to do so by ITV reporter Joe Pike. Instead he pocketed the reporter’s phone and only agreed to look at the picture and return the phone when Pike challenged him on it.
Hid in a fridge
The prime minister also faced criticism when he hid in a fridge rather than face an interview with Piers Morgan, but none of these mini-controversies made any difference to the progress of his campaign. By 10pm on Thursday night, it was clear that the Conservatives had demolished Labour’s Red Wall and defended almost all their seats in England.
By Friday morning, Labour was facing its worst defeat since 1935, Swinson had lost her own seat along with a number of Liberal Democrat colleagues, and Johnson was the most powerful prime minister since Tony Blair.
Standing at a lectern with the slogan “The People’s Government” shortly after 7am on Friday, Johnson promised to lead a one-nation Conservative government that would unite the country after the divisions over Brexit. But alongside the magnanimity he suggested that he still has parliament and its privileges in his sights.
“As the nation hands us this historic mandate we must rise to the challenge and to the level of expectation. And parliament must change so we are working for you, the British people. This is what we will now do, isn’t it?” he said.