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Britons woke Friday to an utterly transformed political landscape following an electoral earthquake that has ripped up modern British politics, and whose tremors will be felt for years to come.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s emphatic win in the country’s third general election in four years — giving the Conservatives, also known as Tories, their biggest parliamentary majority in more than a quarter of a century — marks a decisive turn in the country’s fortunes following the instability triggered by the 2016 Brexit referendum, say analysts.
Armed with an 80-seat majority, the biggest at a general election since Margaret Thatcher’s in 1987, Johnson’s government now will be able to end the deadlock in Britain’s Parliament and deliver on the Conservative promise to “get Brexit done” without further delay. Britain will almost certainly exit the European Union by the end of January, triggering a second and likely trickier stage of negotiations with Brussels over the country’s future political and trade relations with the European continent.
Speaking from the steps of No. 10 Downing Street, Johnson said Thursday’s election results show the “irrefutable” decision of the British people is to leave the EU and to end the “miserable threats” of a second Brexit referendum, a rerun plebiscite backed by Britain’s main opposition party, Labor, and the centrist Liberal Democrats.
The huge victory, which saw the country’s main opposition Labor Party record its worst electoral performance since 1935, is a vindication of Johnson’s decision, say analysts, to focus the election campaigning on Brexit and not to be drawn in too much by Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn’s effort to make the poll about the crumbling state of Britain’s public services. Johnson’s strategy was posited on the idea that Britons, even those who would prefer to remain in the EU, have become sick and tired of the long-running Brexit mess and want the saga to end.
Johnson also had his fair share of luck, “the biggest piece of which was Jeremy Corbyn,” according to Daniel Finkelstein, a onetime adviser to former Conservative leader David Cameron and now a columnist with The Times. “Corbyn kept more moderate Conservatives voting Tory even when they had doubts about Boris Johnson. He neither united the liberal left and center behind a policy of stopping Brexit nor the traditional Labor vote behind a populist manifesto,” he said.
In the final days of the campaign, Johnson focused on Labor’s so-called “red wall” of constituencies searching for cracks to widen in former mining towns and farming villages crucial to the Conservatives’ hopes of winning Thursday’s election, warning voters they face a “great Brexit betrayal,” if they voted for an increasingly metropolitan and far-left Labor Party.
On Thursday, Johnson managed not just to breach what was once considered an impregnable wall, but he bulldozed through it by persuading traditional working-class voters who favor Brexit in the north of England to ditch their lifetime habit of voting Labor. Constituencies that have been synonymous with Labor for decades fell like dominoes — seats like Workington in the northwest English county of Cumbria, which has been held by Labor for 97 out of the last 100 years.
For Labor, the election amounts to an existential crisis — the same for the Liberal Democrats, whose leader Jo Swinson failed even to get re-elected as a lawmaker. Corbyn, widely seen as the most far-left leader Labor has had since the 1930s, has said he won’t lead Labor into another election and will stand down but only after a “period of reflection.”
Labor moderates want him to go immediately, and they fear he wants to oversee the choice of his successor, which his internal party opponents see as a sign that he and the left wing of the party will not easily relinquish control.
Left-wingers attribute the party’s failure to Brexit and say it has nothing to do with Corbyn or his ideology. Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary, tweeted that this had been a “Brexit election.” “Johnson must continue to be fought with radical alternatives, not triangulation, that challenge the Tories head-on,” he added.
But moderate Labor candidates say that on the doorsteps while campaigning, they found the main problem for the party wasn’t Brexit but deep distrust for the Labor leader. They note that while Labor did worse in seats that voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, they also fared badly in constituencies that voted to remain in the EU.
One Labor candidate, Phil Wilson, who failed to keep what had been a safe Labor seat in the north, said it was “mendacious nonsense” for Corbyn loyalists to blame the result on Brexit. “Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was a bigger problem,” he said. “To say otherwise is delusional.”
Scotland, Northern Ireland
Despite their huge win, the victorious Conservatives will face challenges of their own, say analysts, both when it comes to Brexit and in terms of London’s relations with Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Johnson’s victory may have seen a remaking of the Conservatives, a party now more working-class than it has ever been, but it may have come at the cost of unmaking Great Britain. North of the English border, in Scotland, the pro-EU Scottish Nationalists, or SNP, also pulled off a landslide win, heralding a coming battle over Scottish independence and setting London and Edinburgh on course for a possible constitutional showdown that risks being fraught as the current clash in Spain between Catalan separatists and Madrid.
The nationalists gained a dozen seats as the Tories, Labor and the Liberal Democrats were wiped out north of the border with the SNP winning 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats, up from the 35 it won in 2017. The SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, vowed Friday to formally request a second independence referendum before the end of the year, saying that the election results north and south of the border showed “the divergent paths” Scotland and the rest of the UK are on.
“Boris Johnson has a mandate to take England out of the EU, but he must accept that I have a mandate to give Scotland a choice for an alternative future,” Sturgeon told the BBC. Johnson repeatedly has promised to reject any demand for another independence ballot, saying that if there is any formal demand, “we will mark that letter return to sender and be done with it.”
Nationalists enjoyed success, too, in British-run Northern Ireland. For the first time, nationalists, who favor reunification with the Irish Republic, now hold a majority of seats in the province, which voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum.
On Brexit, Johnson likely will continue to face internal Conservative party disputes, say analysts, with half his Cabinet favoring a so-called soft Brexit, entailing a close trading and political relationship with the EU. Johnson is aiming to conclude a trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020, but EU leaders have warned the timetable is unrealistic and the complicated negotiations will be daunting and take years.
The new president of the European Council, Charles Michel, warned that Brussels won’t agree to a free trade deal that does excludes Britain agreeing to abide by EU regulatory rules and product standards. “The EU is ready for the next phase,” he said. “We will negotiate a future trade deal, which ensures a true level playing field,” he added.
EU officials formally welcomed Johnson’s victory but added they hope the prime minister will negotiate a “close as possible future relationship.” Some European officials say the Conservatives’ big parliamentary majority should give Johnson political space to maneuver and override the objections of those Tories who want a “clean break” with the EU.
Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party, which failed to win any parliamentary seats Thursday, says he fears Johnson will pivot now that he has a large majority and will eventually conclude a closer relationship with the EU than hard-line Brexiters would like.