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Opinion: Broad changes challenge British politics

Labour has surged dramatically to a nine-point lead over Conservatives. A majority of poll respondents say Boris Johnson should resign

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Helen Morgan of the Liberal Democrats, center, arrives shortly before being declared the winner in the North Shropshire by-election in Shrewsbury, England.

Helen Morgan of the Liberal Democrats, center, arrives shortly before being declared the winner in the North Shropshire by-election in Shrewsbury, England, early Friday Dec. 17, 2021. The Liberal Democrats overturned an almost 23,000 Conservative majority to win the special election that was sparked by the resignation of Owen Paterson, a result that heaps further pressure on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Jacob King, PA via Associated Press

“Our country is crying out for leadership. Mr. Johnson, you’re no leader.”

Helen Morgan of the victorious Liberal Democrats made that statement following a stunning victory, and defeat for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party, in the North Shropshire by-election held on Dec. 16.

A Conservative Party majority of approximately 23,000 in the 2019 general election became a Liberal Democrat majority of nearly 6,000. The Conservatives had held the seat for about 200 years.

Conservatives retain Parliament with a sizable majority. Nonetheless, flamboyant Johnson is now in trouble, with tenure as prime minister in question.

A by-election fills a seat in the House of Commons between regular general elections. In this case, incumbent Conservative M.P. Owen Patterson resigned following revelations he engaged in prohibited lobbying.

The Conservative candidate for the seat appeared to be in a strong position until controversies regarding Johnson and the government erupted. In particular, the public is extremely upset over increasing reports of rule breaking, including partying by government officials in violation of their own COVID-19 rules.

Broader change is underway in Britain’s politics. In local and regional government elections in May, the Conservative Party emerged as overall winner. Some media and political analysts focused on this, but in reality, the results are complex, with other parties making gains.

The Scottish National Party increased its regional representation, while the Labour Party maintained control in the Wales Assembly. In England, the Conservatives increased representation, but the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats also made gains. Liberal Democrats emphasize local government and service.

In the 19th century, the Victorian musical team of Gilbert and Sullivan could declare every baby was born “a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.” In the 20th century, the working-class achieved the vote, unions became political powerhouses, and the Labour Party replaced the Liberals. Through all this, two-party dominance remained.

The last quarter of the 20th century witnessed rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, revival of the Liberals, and continued growth of support for the successor Liberal Democrats.

Single-issue parties also have emerged. Brexit and Green parties focus respectively on exiting the European Union and promoting environmental concerns. British politics today features multiple parties.

Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May succeeded David Cameron in 2016 after the surprise defeat of his referendum aimed at remaining in the European Union. She diligently negotiated complex withdrawal accords with the Eurocrats in Brussels, only to face three rejections in Parliament.

 Good Citizen May was replaced by Brazen Boris Johnson in July 2019. That December, Conservatives won a large House of Commons majority in a general election.

Johnson immediately rushed Brexit legislation through Parliament while postponing details. The cost includes renewed conflict with Ireland, an EU member, regarding Northern Ireland.

Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University in Scotland, an influential and perceptive analyst, has argued insightfully regarding recent elections that national government policies indeed matter to voters. Specifically, Brexit support among working class and other traditionally Labour Party voters has led large proportions of them to vote for the Conservative Party.

Yet that referendum vote was close. Today, Labour has surged dramatically to a nine-point lead over Conservatives. A majority of poll respondents state Johnson should resign.

Today as in the past, Britain combines intense politics with stability. Decades ago, Professor Samuel Beer of Harvard University provided brilliant, durable analysis of British political change within stability.

Learn More: Samuel H. Beer, “British Politics in the Collectivist Age”

Arthur I. Cyr is the author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu