How Boris Johnson Made His Historic Election Victory: The Inside Story

Arj Singh

Make sense of politics. Sign up to the Waugh Zone and get the political day in a nutshell.

The biggest Tory majority since the 1980s, the Labour vote smashed into smithereens, and the Brexit “gridlock” broken - Boris Johnson would have a right to be dancing around Downing Street when the news came.

So gathered with five or so aides and girlfriend Carrie Symonds as the monumental election exit poll dropped on TV screens at 10pm, was the prime minister punching the air in No.10?

“That’s not our style, we keep it cool,” Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s mercurial chief of staff, told HuffPost UK.

Another aide said there was a “sober” realisation among Johnson and his team of what breaking down Labour’s so-called “red wall” of seats in the north and Midlands really meant - representing swathes of working class voters for the first time in decades.

But over in Conservative campaign headquarters (CCHQ), exhausted but “euphoric” and “jubilant” staffers were ready for a blowout.

When the Tories won Blyth Valley in an early shock, “we knew it was real”, said one.

And there were chants of “ohh Isaac Levido”, the Tories’ campaign manager, to the same Seven Nation Army tune the Labour faithful reserve for Jeremy Corbyn.

When Johnson appeared on Friday morning in front of banners declaring his “People’s Government”, the coup de grace was complete, and Britain was, as the PM put himself, “Corbyn neutral by Christmas”.

It marked a huge vindication of the Tories’ election plan of winning over ex-Labour voters in Leave areas, which at one point looked high risk.

As one experienced northern Tory staffer said of some northern voters: “If they had a choice between voting Tory or selling their kids they’d rather sell their kids.”

Boris Johnson poses with workers during a visit to Wilton Engineering Services in the 'red wall' area of Middlesbrough, on November 20 (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The party had been here and failed before in 2017 when Theresa May failed to break through red wall of working class Brexit-backing seats.

But while May’s attempt to woo Labour Leavers who had never countenanced the idea of voting Tory failed on one fundamental error - the ‘dementia tax’ - this time the party left no room for error.

For a man known as a flamboyant, swashbuckling politician, Johnson ran one of the most risk-averse election campaigns in modern memory.

From dodging interviews to refusing to even look at a photo of a sick boy forced to sleep on a hospital floor, the prime minister simply refused to do anything at all that could take him off-message.

It became ridiculous at times, such as when Johnson made a debate audience groan by saying he would give Jeremy Corbyn his Brexit deal for Christmas.

But when voters began repeating the key slogan back at the PM - “get Brexit done” - as they did when he bumbled through Salisbury Christmas market, it was clear he had struck a chord.

Despite, or perhaps because of, disinformation and the thinnest election manifesto in memory (save the Brexit Party), Johnson got to the end of the campaign having successfully stayed ruthlessly on message.

The mistakes of 2017 were avoided, and May’s strategy realised.

As one cabinet minister put it mid-way through the campaign: “Last time we had a dementia tax, this time we’ve got a dementia cure”.

A very wobbly start 

Despite Friday’s resounding win, Boris Johnson’s campaign did not begin well.

In the first week alone, Jacob Rees-Mogg horrified his colleagues and the wider public by suggesting Grenfell disaster victims lacked common sense, Welsh secretary Alun Cairns resigned over allegations he knew about an former aide’s role in the sabotage of a rape trial, and Johnson was facing questions about whether his “friend”, tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri, was given special favours while he was mayor.

But in Conservative campaign headquarters (CCHQ), an election-winning strategy was being honed by Levido.

The Australian protege of Sir Lynton Crosby has been described as a US-style “classical campaign manager” in the mould of David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s 2008 election-winning strategist.

Levido was “more of an MD (managing director) than a CEO” - taking a broad overview of the campaign and making sure everything went to plan.

One insider said he was a “very calm character with no ego, who makes slight adjustments rather than knee-jerk reactions” - an approach seen throughout a controlled campaign in which the Tories very much stuck to the plan.

It is unclear if it was his idea to blast Europe’s 80s classic The Final Countdown around the office at 8.30am every single day of the campaign, by which time many staffers had been in work for several hours and were ready for a nap.

(On the final day of campaigning the record was finally changed to One Day More from Les Miserables, sparking cheering, applause and a mass singalong after a slog of a campaign). 

Joining Levido was ex-Vote Leave media guru Paul Stephenson, who took charge of messaging, social media and the “grid” of announcements.

Stephenson, described as “a good thinker” with “excellent snap judgment”, acting as Levido’s “number two” soon whipped the campaign into shape.

It was “night and day” from the “shitshow” of CCHQ during Johnson’s first weeks in office, when government special advisers simply stopped dealing with the office, one insider said.

“Isaac has done a great job,” they added.

Farage’s farrago

On November 11, the Tories received a game-changing gift as Nigel Farage decided to stand down Brexit Party candidates in all 317 seats taken by the Tories in 2017.

There were questions about how much this would help Johnson given Farage was still fighting the Tories in their Labour-held target seats.

Back-channel conversations continued between the Tories and the Brexit Party in attempt to get Farage to go further, which he refused, crying foul about dirty tricks and intimidation.

But Farage had already given the Tories a huge boost by effectively backing Johnson’s Brexit plan off the back of one social media video recorded by the PM.

One insider, and a veteran of Vote Leave, said the Brexit Party leader was “all over the place” amid pressure from competing factions within his own party.

“Nigel needed to announce something to keep that coalition together, it could have been to say we’re not going to oppose the Tories but we will hold them to account, which is where they ended up, but in a panic.

“So I think the Tories got lucky to be honest.

“I don’t think there’s any genius masterstroke to it.”

Hammering Labour

With Farage seen off and the Liberal Democrats underperforming, the path was clear for the Tories to unite the Leave vote and paint the election as a divide between “getting Brexit done” and “more dither and delay” offered by Corbyn.

Aside from the Brexit message, the Tories also hammered Corbyn on the credibility of his economic plans as well as his record on security and anti-Semitism.

The groundwork elsewhere had already been done by Johnson in government - pledges to spend £20.5bn more on the NHS in real terms and hire 20,000 extra police officers weakened key Labour attack lines.

And Brexit and the fear of Corbyn proved a powerful combination in winning over Labour switchers.

One Tory former minister, standing for re-election in a northern Leave constituency noted during the campaign: “We went into our toughest council estate and it was rock-solid Tory, I couldn’t believe it.

“I get the impression they don’t like Corbyn, they voted Brexit, they are sick to death of being told they are too stupid to know the arguments, many of them expected to leave the day after the referendum and htey are very frustrated that Brexit hasn’t happened.

“They probably take the view that in four years time they can probably elect a Labour government then, but this is their only chance for Brexit.

“They don’t like Corbyn and they are quite content to vote Conservative, it is spooky.”

Love HuffPost? Become a founding member of HuffPost Plus today.

Corbyn after getting re-elected in his Islington North constituency (Photo: PA Wire/PA Images)

Another candidate, who claimed a shock victory after being parachuted into a seat thought unwinnable, said: “People don’t trust Corbyn, they want to get Brexit sorted out.

“And the weirdest thing, Brexit is like a democracy thing - it plays into a broader narrative about how they feel about the Labour party at the moment.

“They have always gone along with Labour being a bit more metropolitan than the people up here but this time it’s more of a feeling that they are ignoring them when it comes to their vote.

“It’s not just their views being ignored by Westminster, it’s democracy being ignored by Westminster and they feel that particularly keenly about the Labour party - their votes are meant to count for something with Labour.

“I get that a lot on the doorsteps.”

 

‘Factcheck UK’

While Johnson navigated the first TV head-to-head debate with the kind of score draw that always meant an effective victory over Corbyn, the Tories made their first mis-step of the campaign.

During the November 19 debate, in which Johnson was laughed at by the audience while trying to stress the importance of truth, CCHQ rebranded its Twitter account “factcheck UK” to peddle out Tory messages in the guise of an independent service.

The move, said to be Paul Stephenson’s brainchild, was branded “dystopian” by Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis and even caused disquiet among the party’s candidates.

“What happened to they go low we go high?” one aide to a moderate ex-minister said.

Staffers did not realise how big a stir it would cause.

“We thought it would be equivalent of turning up at an SNP rally with a Sturgeon mask on and a silly sign and then it was leading the news,” one said.

The same staffer also showed HuffPost UK a graph showing the Tories social media impressions soaring that night amid the controversy.

“I think everyone would admit that was probably a mistake but if that’s the biggest mistake in your campaign you can probably live with it,” another insider noted.

The branding was even revived as Johnson claimed victory, in the kind of knowing dig at the “Twitter bubble” which Johnson’s aides so relish.

 

Muted manifesto

In 2017, manifesto week was when things began to turn against the Tories. The party left nothing to chance this time.

The day after the ITV debate, Johnson blurted out a key pledge to cut national insurance tax, apparently getting his figures wrong.

No matter, the conversation moved on from the factcheck controversy and on to just how big a tax cut the Tories were offering.

Whether that was a mistake or not, there was a very deliberate rolling of the pitch that week.

Johnson was about to dramatically water a steps-of-No.10 pledge to deliver major social care reform - the issue that did for May last time.

But the Tories smartly briefed their watered down social care policy to the media the night before the Labour manifesto launch on Thursday that week, making it disappear in news coverage.

As one staffer said, by the time of the low-key Tory launch on Sunday, the social care issue had been covered but barely noticed, and any potential row “defused”.

“From a CCHQ perspective it was all about not drawing too much attention to the manifesto and they succeeded, that was the whole strategy,” another aide said.

The big announcement on the day was a pledge to ensure the NHS had 50,000 more nurses - another claim which quickly fell apart.

Munira Mirza, Johnson’s former deputy mayor for culture during his time at London’s City Hall, had written the manifesto in her new role as director of the No.10 policy unit.

But under questioning from reporters in Telford’s international conference centre, where Johnson set out his blueprint, Mirza admitted that the bulk of the “new” nurses would actually come from the retention of current staff.

But like Vote Leave’s £350m NHS Brexit bus pledge, key aides were relaxed about the public hearing about thousands of extra nurses for two days straight.

It was part of a long-planned strategy led by Dominic Cummings to take the fight to Labour on the NHS for the first time in an election. It will now form a blueprint for future battles.

“Dom has known the importance of NHS for longer than most,” another insider said.

“The Tories were too afraid to take Labour on before.”

Labour’s manifesto, promising hundreds of billions of extra spending, meanwhile failed to shift the dial as it did in 2017.

And Tory concern over Labour’s post-manifesto £58bn pledge to compensate 1950s-born “Waspi” women affected by state pension age changes quickly dissipated.

One Tory peer said the issue risked “burning the party” and “there is no question that a series of people were worried about it”, including candidates and one cabinet minister “who thought there wasn’t a satisfactory answer”.

“The problem was this came within 24 hours of the Labour party saying they had a carefully costed plan and then within 48 hours of seizing on Waspi women they then identified another substantial expense.

“They lost financial credibility very, very quickly.”

The Final Countdown

By the final two weeks, the die of the election appeared to have been cast.

A disastrous interview in which the BBC’s Andrew Neil skewered Corbyn on anti-Semitism and his Waspi pledge helped.

“The Corbyn car crash with Andrew Neil has definitely cut through,” a northern ex-minister said at the time.

“People are saying it’s almost as bad as Prince Andrew.”

Meanwhile, Johnson deflected criticism for continually ducking TV events, including a Channel 4 News climate change debate in which he was replaced by an ice sculpture.

By now, the Vote Leave campaign’s tactics had truly kicked in, with Stephenson “essentially running things”.

“They just got into a massive process row, talking about Ofcom and ice cubes,” one Leave veteran said.

“That’s what we did on all those kinds of things, just launch a process row.”

Johnson navigated the final hurdles without trouble - Donald Trump managed to keep his mouth shut while visiting London for the Nato summit, and the final head-to-head debate with Corbyn passed largely without incident.

The PM went into the final week dialling up the rhetoric on immigration to squeeze out those last votes but there was one sting in the tail.

Johnson was heavily criticised over his response to a photo of a four year-old boy, Jack Williment-Barr, who was forced to sleep on the floor of Leeds General Infirmary due to a lack of beds.

The Tories had so far just about held their own on the NHS, Cummings’ strategy paying off, but Johnson refused to look at a photo of the boy during an interview, even pocketing a reporter’s phone which was displaying the image.

in September, Johnson had shown a similar lack of empathy when an angry father in Whipps Cross hospital in East London confronted him over delays to his son’s treatment. 

Back then, even close allies were surprised that he had become so risk-averse that he didn’t take the man aside and ask for his details and offer personal reassurance he would check out the case.

Both incidents played into two weak points - that the Tories are heartless and that they cannot be trusted on the NHS. 

The LGI incident panicked jaded party officials, who seized on unconfirmed reports within the party that an aide to Matt Hancock had been punched as the health secretary visited the hospital. 

A story was breathlessly briefed to the travelling media pack and reported on Twitter without checks, but quickly fell apart, prompting apologies from all concerned.

By now, Johnson was running on empty himself, delivering waffling speeches as he toured the country for photo ops of him doing various jobs - delivering milk, stacking shelves, making pies and demolishing a wall with a Brexit-themed bulldozer. 

His cry of “get Brexit done” appeared increasingly exasperated and exhausted as the campaign neared its end.

As the polls continued to narrow and there were signs of a late Labour surge, Corbyn began to appear more relaxed.

But in the end, it appeared Johnson had avoided his ‘dementia tax’ moment.

The northern Tory staffer said: “Last time, you could feel it turn on the doorstep a long time before they did at CCHQ - as soon as the manifesto was published it turned.

“This time it’s different.”

When Levido and Stephenson turned up at the final rally of the campaign in London’s Olympic park, the scene of “peak Boris” in 2012, they could not resist cheering and applauding as their knackered leader Johnson asked if the crowd of several hundred supporters were “pumped up”, “energised” and “motivated” - to which they shouted “yes”.

He said: “I sincerely hope so everybody because we have a national duty between now and 10 o’clock tomorrow night to find every vote we can to save our country from disaster.

“We all know what happened two years ago. We know we cannot trust the opinion polls and we know this contest is tight and getting tighter.”

In the end, it wasn’t tight at all.

But Johnson kept it cool.

At a Westminster victory rally full of jubilant, tired, drunk staffers including all his top team on Friday morning: “I have a message to all those who voted for us yesterday, especially those who voted for us Conservatives, one nation Conservatives for the first time.

“You may only have lent us your vote and you may not think of yourself as a natural Tory.

“And as I think I said 11 years ago to the people of London when I was elected in what was thought of as a Labour city, your hand may have quivered over the ballot paper as before you put your cross in the Conservative box and you may intend to return to Labour next time round.

“And if that is the case, I am humbled that you have put your trust in me and that you have put your trust in us.”

Related...

Here's What We Learned From The Election Results

Boris Johnson Victory Speech: PM 'Humbled' As He Hails 'New Dawn'

Boris Johnson Victory: What Happens Now With Brexit?

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.