Boris Johnson’s election gamble appears to have paid off.
An exit poll and series of stunning results suggested his Conservative Party was on course to secure a large majority in the House of Commons, putting Brexit firmly back on track and sending the opposition Labour party into a tailspin.
The exit poll, conducted for the UK’s main broadcasters, predicted the Conservatives would win 368 seats, well ahead of Labour’s 191. The Scottish National Party was projected to win 55 seats, with the Liberal Democrats on 13.
Reacting to the exit polls, Johnson thanked the Conservative Party’s voters, candidates and volunteers. “We live in the greatest democracy in the world,” he tweeted.
As official results fell broadly in line with the early projections, the Conservatives were heading for their best result since Margaret Thatcher’s win in 1987 – and the worst Labour result in more than 80 years. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, said he would stand down, after a period of “reflection.”
Divisive election campaign
The results mean that Johnson will find it easy to pass his Brexit deal through Parliament and to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union – more than three years after the country voted to leave the bloc.
In Europe, there was a cautious welcome to the the results. France’s European affairs minister Amelie de Montchalin said France had been asking for clarity on Brexit for a long time. “This result brings that,” she said.
The result came after divisive election campaign was plagued by disinformation and which left many voters feeling frustrated. And while Brexit was the key topic, domestic politics regularly dominated the headlines.
Earlier this week, a photograph of a four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia, forced to lie on a hospital emergency room floor as he waited for a bed, steered the conversation to the cash-strapped National Health Service.
The UK’s relationship with the United States, and a future trade deal between the two, climate change and public spending also played into the debate.
Pledge to ‘Get Brexit Done’
Johnson, who only entered Downing Street in July, promised to deliver Brexit by the end of January and then immediately start negotiating a new trade agreement with the European Union.
He is hoping to secure a deal by the end of 2020, before the end of the so-called transition period during which the UK will be formally out of the bloc but still subject to all its rules and regulations. The transition period is designed to prevent a hard landing.
If Johnson can’t secure a deal by the end of next year, he would likely need to ask the EU for an extension to the transition period. Crashing out without a trade agreement would be hugely damaging for the UK economy.
On Wednesday CNN obtained a leaked recording of Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, stating that Johnson’s chances of getting a deal before 2021 were “improbable.”
Johnson’s message to “Get Brexit Done” was at the heart of his campaign and in stark contrast to that of Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Corbyn remained vaguer on his Brexit plans and focused his campaign on increased public spending and radical economic reforms. He pledged to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and then put the new deal to voters with a remain option also on the polling card.
But Corbyn’s socialist manifesto, which included a plan to nationalize key utilities including energy infrastructure, railways and broadband, appeared to scare off some voters. Combined with the party’s cloudy Brexit plan, the campaign resulted in what looks set to be the party’s worst election result since 1935.
Outspoken Labour figure Jess Phillips said the anticipated big Conservative victory “feels like a punch in the stomach.”
She tweeted: “We will all be thinking of the harm that can be done to those we care for. I understand, I feel pain, take that anger you feel and know it has to be fuel. Maybe not tonight but tomorrow.”
Speaking to ITV News later in the night, Phillips hinted that she may stand in a future leadership election to replace Corbyn. “If people trust me then yes, I will take a role in rebuilding,” she said.
Future of the union in question
The result, if confirmed, will put a question mark over Scotland’s future in the United Kingdom, since the SNP’s key aim is Scottish independence.
The exit poll suggests the SNP has gained 20 more seats compared to the 2017 election, winning in almost all Scottish constituencies.
Scotland voted to stay in the European Union in the 2016 Brexit Referendum, and the SNP has consistently argued the country is “being dragged out” of the EU against its will.
While Johnson has pledged to stop a second Scottish independence referendum, the SNP will likely feel emboldened by their election result.
Simon Hix, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics said the exit polls suggested “a mandate for Johnson and Brexit in England, and a mandate for Scottish independence in Scotland.”
Conservative rebels ousted
The general election, Britain’s third in just four years, was not due to have been held until 2022, but Johnson was forced to call one early after suffering a series of key defeats in Parliament in the fall. Unable to find enough support for his Brexit strategy, the Prime Minister first rid his party of rebels opposing hard Brexit and then called the snap vote.
The Prime Minister was initially under threat of losing votes to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. However, midway through the campaign, Farage announced his party would not contest Conservative-held seats, which increased Johnson’s chances of a victory. Farage explained the move as an attempt to avoid a split in the Brexit vote.
Even with that boost, it wasn’t plain sailing for Johnson. One opinion poll published late Tuesday showed his predicted majority shrinking to just 28 seats, from 68 two weeks earlier.
But Johnson appears to have proved the polls wrong.
The former London Mayor is known for his grandiose and at times clownish demeanor, messy haircut and fondness for Latin phrases.
His personal life is best described as “complicated.” He moved into the PM’s official residence in Downing Street with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds, who is more than two decades younger than him. At the time, Johnson’s divorce from his wife of 26 years, Marina Wheeler – with whom he has four children – had not been finalized.
During the campaign, Johnson kept his contact with the public to a minimum, refused to be interviewed by a tenacious TV interviewer, and declined to participate in a leaders’ debate on climate change. Earlier this week, he hid in a fridge to avoid a reporter.
In the end, that strategy appeared to have worked. His next challenge is whether or not he can keep his party together as he finally delivers the Brexit so many of them voted for – and have been arguing about ever since.