What will a Conservative win mean for the UK?

Executive summary:

With the 12th of December deadline fast approaching, the prospect of another Conservative government increments. Ahead in most of the polls and facing a country bitterly divided over the Brexit issue, Prime Minister Boris Johnson received a major boost when Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party announced they would not be contesting Conservative Party held seats, thus allowing Johnson to amass much of the Brexit vote. Indeed, since Johnson took over at the helm of the country in July, he has been demanding a general election. The Conservatives recently released their manifesto, and Johnson will be hoping it will pitch in the mind of the public and ensure he is not giving up the keys to 10 Downing Street on the 13th of December. A manifesto with Brexit the front and centre of and no significant proposals to reverse 9 years of crippling cuts, ostensibly, a Johnson led Britain will continue the legacy of unforgiving and insensitive Conservative rule.


The manifesto was part of the many factors which ultimately hampered Theresa May in the 2017 general election. Her U-turn on her party’s social care policy which initially aimed to make people pay more of the cost of social care, branded the ‘dementia tax’, was of the most notable deficiencies.

That was perhaps Johnson’s thinking behind the manifesto. Why pack it with ideas and policies, just days after Labour released a manifesto swarming with seductive policies, when in comparison they will be deemed less ambitious. Rather Johnson and his team have stuck to the pre-election hymn sheet and aimed all their attention at Brexit. More than three and a half years since the referendum, to label the British arena one hamstrung by the political logjam would be an understatement. Hence the three worded phrase that Johnson has employed in abundance. Get Brexit Done.

It is the title of the manifesto and his go-to slogan since becoming prime minister. But just like most Brexit populist rallying cries, primarily the ‘we send the EU 350 million a week’ that was famously expressed on the side of a bus, it is misleading and false. Johnson insists providing him with a majority will allow him to pass his withdrawal agreement and swiftly sort Brexit out.

But parliament passing the deal is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exiting the European Union. Following Johnson’s inability to deliver on his promise and depart on Halloween, the new deadline is the 31st of January 2020. But the assertion that Brexit will be ‘done’ the moment the withdrawal agreement is passed is disingenuous. It would simply pave the way for further negotiations on the future agreement to commence. The clock is already ticking towards the end of 2020, which marks the culmination of the transition period. Plus Johnson and his cabinet have accentuated they will not be extending beyond the transition deadline.

So, assuming Johnson cobbles together a majority in the election and then passes his withdrawal agreement, it leaves 11 months to unpack 50 years of trade, security and foreign policy. Former British Envoy to the EU, Ivan Rogers, suggested Johnson’s desperation to get a deal over the line before his self-imposed deadline may leave him susceptible to a deal tilted in the EU’s favour. To put things into perspective, it took the EU five years to strike market-opening accords with Japan and Canada and twenty to get a deal with the Mercosur group of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Therefore, it may be wishful thinking from the Conservatives to suggest Brexit will be thrashed out by this time next year. So even with a majority, the deadlock that has engulfed Britain is set to overstay its welcome.

As well as more uncertainty, research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research shows that Johnson’s Brexit deal would shave up to 4% from the size of the economy by the end of the 2020s, equivalent to about £1,100 per person per year. They said that Johnson’s plan would fail to generate a ‘deal dividend’ for the economy and would instead over the course of a decade cost the UK economy as much as £70billion, contrary to government claims that MPs passing the withdrawal agreement would spur economic growth. By contrast, membership in the EU would allow the economy to grow by 3.5%.

Moreover, the most controversial part of May’s deal was the Irish Backstop, which would have kept the United Kingdom in the customs union and single market and continue trade with the EU. Opposition to it from Johnson and his ardent Euroskpetic Conservative peers, who now make up his cabinet, ultimately blocked her deal from passing in the commons. But the only alternative would be a hard border in the Irish Sea.

Incidentally, that’s exactly what Johnson emphasised is absurd in a 2018 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) conference, when he proclaimed ‘no British Prime Minister could ever accept a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea’. But his deal contradicts his statement. Article 4 of the Northern Ireland Protocol clearly states that: ‘Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom. This means Northern Ireland will be included as part of, and benefit from, all future trade deals the UK makes with third countries after Brexit.

However, to get around the problem of a hard border, including checkpoints, with Ireland, Northern Ireland will still come under some EU customs rules – meaning any goods that come from Britain into Northern Ireland will be subject to an EU customs code. Checks will take place at ports and airports rather than at the border. As EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said, ‘Northern Ireland will also remain an entry point into our single market.’ This effectively draws a border on goods in the Irish Sea, with which the DUP are unhappy. As a result, this disrupts the mechanisms that have enabled frictionless trade and contributed to the harmony and cohesion of the UK.

Yet it does not stop there. A new IPSOS Mori poll shows that support in Scotland for independence has increased, with the issue now at 50-50 between the Scottish public. Likewise, the Scottish National Party is on course for major gains in the election and are expected to win 48 out of 59 seats, as the Tories slip to a distant second.

Indeed, the prospect of a Conservative government adamant on leaving the EU by any means necessary will only harden the sentiments towards Scottish independence, in a country that voted overwhelmingly to remain. So on the Irish and Scottish front, a Conservative government could prove detrimental to the makeup of the UK.

Additionally, on a domestic level, there appears no robust attempt to reverse the 9 years of brutal cuts because of austerity, thus rendering chancellor Sajid Javid’s allegation that by virtue of the ‘biggest spending boost in 15 years’ he and his party will ‘turn the page on austerity’ futile.

Indisputably, a decade of austerity has decimated the public services and with it the people so heavily reliant on them have been collateral damage. Regarding the health service, a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) finds that more than 130,000 deaths in the UK since 2012 could have been prevented if improvements in public health policy had not stalled as a direct result of austerity cuts. The IPPR concludes had progress been maintained at pre-2013 rates, around 131,000 lives could have been saved.

Yet in the Conservative manifesto, the pledges to enhance the state of the health service are modest and uninventive. They have restated the commitment first announced by Theresa May in Summer 2018 to provide additional funding for day-to-day spending on the NHS, leading to an average growth of 3.3% in day-to-day spending between 2019 and 2023. The Institute for Fiscal Studies have stated that such growth pales in comparison to Labour and the Liberal Democrats spending intentions, who propose average growth rates of 3.8% and 3.7% respectively.

Even pledges to improve operations such as investing in more nurses and more hospitals have been proved inaccurate. Johnson pledged to build 40 new hospitals, but a dissection of the funds shows that in reality only 6 will be built, and other funds will be allocated to 21 NHS trusts to help them kickstart their plans for building, but the actual work will start between 2025 and 2030. Regarding the recruitment of nurses, the health secretary Matt Hancock reiterated the claims of Johnson and those in the manifesto which declared that under a Conservative government 50,000 new nurses would be delivered. But the plan quickly unravelled as it is understood 19,000 of those nurses would actually be retained and persuaded to stay, rather than newly recruited.

This unadorned approach to the health service investment was mirrored for other public services too. Education spending has been slashed by £7billion since 2011 and ergo devastated schools, to the extent that four in five teachers are using their own money to support schoolchildren and three in four headteachers rely on parents’ financial contributions to prop up school budgets.

The Conservative manifesto confirmed their plans from the 2019 Spending Round to increase school spending in England by £7.1billion in cash terms by 2022-23. This would represent a £4.3billion increase in real terms or a 7.4% increase in spending per pupil. Whilst this would be an improvement, it is not a total reverse of the cuts, as it would leave spending per pupil in 2023 no higher than it was in 2010, when the destructive cuts were initiated. Contrastingly, Labour have committed to a £7.5 billion real terms increase by 2022–23 or a 14.6% rise in spending per pupil. To illustrate the restricted nature of these Conservatives pledges, research shows schools in the vast majority of constituencies in England will be worse off next year than they were in 2015.

Palpably, whilst the Conservatives have made an effort to undo some of the damage caused by their austerity, it is mainly the health and education services that have been targeted, but even those investments are unobtrusive. Hence, the IFS have asserted even in 2023-24 day-to-day spending outside of those planned for schools and health would still be approximately 15% lower than at the start of the decade.

In fact, there are concerns that child poverty is at risk of rising to a record 60-year high under Conservative rule because its manifesto retains the benefit cuts. The Resolution Foundation thinktank predicted a rise in the number of children living in relative poverty under a Boris Johnson-led government to 34.5% in 2023-24 up from 29.6% in 2017-18. Whereas Labour’s £9billion of additional spending on social security would mean 55,000 fewer children in poverty.

Hence the IFS director Paul Johnson’s assertion that austerity is ‘baked’ in the Conservative manifesto with a notable lack of significant social policy action.


The presumption that Brexit will no longer dominate the political discourse during Johnson’s tenure is imprecise. Not only will the ambivalence persist, the ramifications on the UK landscape will be profound. The formation of the UK could be in jeopardy which has the potential to amplify friction. The fifth largest economy in the world could end up deteriorating, and there is no guarantee those who always feel the brunt, and have done for the last decade, will have their suffering alleviated, as there is a lack of hefty investments for public services. Johnson branded his manifesto as the key to unleashing Britain’s potential, but the all indications suggest otherwise.

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