A defeat as crushing as the centre-left suffered on Thursday night leaves it at the mercy of its opponents. Of all the necessary mental adjustments, this will be the hardest to make.
The world of the 2010s is over. From 2010 to 2015, the Conservatives were in coalition, and the Liberal Democrats could moderate their excesses. From 2015 to 2019, the Conservatives had a small majority and then no majority. Backbenchers and rebel alliances were free to dictate policy as if we were reliving the 19th century. Opposition could be felt and heard. Now the Remain cause, or the hope that Britain can have a Brexit that protects jobs and living standards, the fine projects to reform the constitution and combat global warming, relieve poverty and reduce inequality, are dead and gone without hope of resurrection.
In case you’ve forgotten or are too young to have learned, defeat can be total in Britain. Long before anyone cared about Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán, the late Lord Hailsham described Britain as an “elective dictatorship”. A prime minister could win a large majority on a minority of the votes and party discipline, an enfeebled second chamber, and the corrupt arts of patronage would ensure the government got its way.
The point about dictatorships, elective or otherwise, is that they decide whether to be enlightened or repressive. It’s the Tories’ choice now, not yours or mine. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” says Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire as she is carried off to the asylum. The left’s defeat means Britain now depends on the kindness of Tories as they carry us away. A hopeless dependency it is likely to be because, if you can shake the arrogant belief that we are exempt from the squalid movements that are shaping the world, you can make a good case that Johnson will follow other strongmen and use his power to crush dissent.
He has already tried to shut down our supposedly sovereign parliament because it would not let him have his way. When Channel 4 politely pointed out that Johnson was ducking campaign debates, he threatened to review its licence. When the BBC highlighted his failure to submit to scrutiny, he threatened to abolish the licence fee. The Conservative party pumped out lies in the election campaign and put up fake Twitter accounts with the brass neck of a Nigerian fraudster. The dangerous lesson they have learned from their victory is that they can subvert institutions, display a contempt for parliamentary democracy, lie without restraint and – guess what? – there is no political price to pay whatsoever. An ominous passage in the Conservative manifesto says the new government will “need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts; the functioning of the royal prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people”. There’s talk of making it harder to scrutinise the security services and limiting the judicial review of ministers’ decisions by judges to ensure “it is not abused to conduct politics by another means”.
Johnson may decide to hold his new electoral coalition by pandering to fears about Muslims and crime, as Trump would advise
Does this mean Johnson can now claim he has a mandate to bulldoze opposition? Will he want to be remembered as the prime minister who abolished The Archers? His friends from his days in journalism say he’s never believed in anything very much and is a liberal at heart. I don’t buy it. Johnson may decide to hold on to his new electoral coalition by pandering to fears about Muslims and crime, as Trump would advise. He can appeal to working- and middle-class voters by becoming a home counties Nicola Sturgeon and turning the Conservatives into the English National Party. Perhaps I am wrong, although his willingness to purge authentically liberal Conservative MPs suggests I am anything but. The point about a total defeat remains that we are reduced to speculating on what is in Johnson’s heart, assuming he has a heart, and making ourselves dependent on his moods and whims. Power and the ability to shape or even influence events has passed decisively from us.
The normal constraint on the elite is the fear that the opposition will supplant the government. It doesn’t exist in England. No Tory will fear the rancid rabble of student politicians who make up the Labour leadership, and not only because they failed so abysmally last week. Although they say they hate the Tories, the far left cannot oppose them because they share too many of their worst instincts. Brexit set the pattern. Labour could not lead on the greatest issue of our age because its leader thought in all seriousness he could be “neutral”. It would not expose Johnson’s false claims that he could “get Brexit done” because it was too conflicted to talk about Brexit at all.
The same will apply to a Conservative assault on the institutions of liberal democracy. The far left will not defend the independence of Channel 4 and the BBC because they no more believe in a free press than the right. (You may have noticed that Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters are as eager to attack the BBC as the most morally compromised Telegraph columnist.) They don’t recognise the independence of the judiciary or civil service either. They believe they are the tools of the bourgeois state, and cannot defend what they have never supported.
The conventional thing to say after a defeat of this magnitude is that we must pick ourselves up and return to the battle. You can guarantee that someone will mount the stage and say we must remember how we felt on Thursday night and resolve never to feel that pain again. Indeed we must. But given the far left’s death grip on the throat of the Labour party and the failure of the Liberal Democrats and Greens to break through, no one can describe what a comeback would look like or how it would work. This is the best definition of a total defeat I know.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist