British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a decisive majority in Thursday’s general election, a stunning victory for the Brexit cheerleader that paves the way for the U.K. Parliament to trigger a long-delayed split with the European Union.
Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives secured a majority in Britain’s 650-seat House of Commons, the party’s strongest performance at an election since 1987. Its projected 364 seats would give it 68 more lawmakers than all the other parties combined.
The scale of the victory makes it all but certain that Britain will leave the EU at the end of next month, completing a divorce that was backed by voters in a 2016 referendum but that has been bogged down in the country’s Parliament for more than three years.
It also signals a once-in-a-generation realignment of Britain’s electoral map, with scores of long-held working-class seats in England and Wales switching to the Conservatives.
That puts Britain in line with a host of other Western countries, including the U.S., where shifting voter loyalties since the financial crash of 2008 have changed the political landscape.
Speaking after being re-elected in his electoral district in west London, Mr. Johnson hailed the results as “historic” and suggested his government “has been given a powerful new mandate to get Brexit done.”
The main opposition Labour Party was on track to score its worst election performance since 1935, with a projected tally of 203 seats. The outcome appeared to sink the leadership of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who campaigned on the party’s most left-wing manifesto in decades with proposals for large increases in government spending the and nationalization of key industries. Early on Friday, he said he wouldn’t run in the next election but would remain at the helm of his party during a period of “reflection and discussion” as it transitions to a new leader.
President Trump congratulated Mr. Johnson on his victory early Friday. “Britain and the United States will now be free to strike a massive new Trade Deal after BREXIT,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “This deal has the potential to be far bigger and more lucrative than any deal that could be made with the EU.”
For Mr. Johnson, the result vindicates a bold transformation of his Conservative Party into a political machine that could appeal to voters spanning from the landed gentry to the working class.
He promised extra government spending to reverse some of the effects of a decade of public belt-tightening since the financial crash. But his triumph came largely on the back of a simple message that a vote for the Conservatives would “Get Brexit Done.”
That Brexit appeal flipped districts long considered Labour bastions. For its first gain of the evening, Mr. Johnson’s party took Blyth Valley, a former coal-mining district in England’s northeast, a seat that had been held by Labour since 1950. Later, his party won Leigh, a Labour district that was ravaged by spending cuts under previous Conservative governments. Meanwhile, the Conservatives managed to hold on to seats in areas of the country, such as Kensington in London, that backed staying in the EU.
“Brexit has dominated, we thought other issues could cut through,” said John McDonnell, a leading Labour lawmaker. “But they haven’t.” He said the results, if correct, were “extremely disappointing.”
The picture was different in Scotland, where the pro-independence Scottish National Party winning 48 of the country’s 59 seats, a gain of 13 districts. That outcome likely puts Scottish independence back on the political agenda.
The leader of the pro-EU Liberal Democratic Party, Jo Swinson, resigned after losing her seat in Scotland to the SNP.
The British pound rose sharply late Thursday as the first exit poll was released, surging 2.5% against the dollar and reaching its highest level since May 2018.
The vote marks a remarkable turnaround for Mr. Johnson, who in the space of five months renegotiated a Brexit divorce deal with the EU and rallied his divided party and Britain’s exasperated voters behind it.
A majority of the projected size would allow him to quickly push the withdrawal deal he negotiated with the EU through Parliament, allowing Britain to formally leave the bloc on Jan. 31. It would also give him greater leeway in Parliament to steer future trade talks with the EU in any direction he chooses.
Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, Britain’s political system was pushed to the breaking point as traditional party allegiances melted over the issue of Brexit. Lawmakers repeatedly refused to endorse a divorce deal with the EU negotiated by the government—while also making sure the U.K. didn’t leave the bloc without a deal.
Mr. Johnson’s EU deal covers divorce issues needed to unwind the U.K.’s 45-year membership in the EU, including the rights of their respective citizens, a settlement of the debts the U.K. owes the EU and an arrangement to prevent a border arising on the island of Ireland.
But its ratification won’t end the Brexit odyssey: The next challenge will be to negotiate future ties between the U.K. and the EU.
Mr. Johnson’s government will have to unmoor an economy tightly integrated to the trade bloc while minimizing the immediate damage to Britain’s business interests. Only after future ties with the EU are settled will it be possible to delve into negotiations to tighten trade ties with other nations, including the U.S.
Once the U.K. leaves the EU, it will enter a transition period in which trade and other relations don’t change.
Mr. Johnson has repeatedly said he wants this transition period to finish at the end of 2020, when a trade deal he hopes to negotiate over the course of next year would kick in. After that, he has said he wants the U.K. to be free to diverge significantly from EU rules and regulations.
However, many trade experts say that timetable is likely overambitious and suggest Mr. Johnson extend the transition period until the agreed limit at the end of 2022 to give him more time for negotiations with the EU over future relations.
The big electoral win gives Mr. Johnson a freer hand in those talks, making him less vulnerable to rebellions by Conservative euroskeptics in Parliament who want a bare-bones trade deal with the EU and a fast exit from the transition period. It would allow him more freedom—if he wants it—to extend negotiations over future ties and strike a deal that maintains deep economic ties to the bloc.
Mr. Corbyn tried to frame the election around inequality and the need to invest in public services. But he failed to define a clear stance on Brexit, calling instead for a second referendum that would include the possibility of staying in the EU. He refused to say which side he would back in such a vote. Meanwhile, his party was convulsed by rolling allegations that Mr. Corbyn has failed to root out anti-Semitism in its ranks.
Mr. Johnson, a 55-year-old former mayor of London and long the most recognizable figure in British politics, was selected in July by Conservative members in part because they saw him as an asset in a general election.
His predecessor, Theresa May, quit after her Brexit deal was rejected three times by lawmakers. Since his selection as leader in July, Mr. Johnson undertook an uncompromising approach. He purged Conservative lawmakers who didn’t fully back his Brexit strategy and suspended Parliament, a move the country’s supreme court ruled unlawful.
Mr. Johnson’s decision to call the election was a huge gamble. His team predicted that Britain’s population, exhausted by the endless debate on Brexit, would vote for closure on the issue.
But that meant rallying Britons who backed Brexit three years ago to vote Conservative. Mr. Johnson, educated at Eton, the country’s most famous elite school, had to woo blue-collar workers in districts that historically never backed his party. Meanwhile, he had to ensure anti-Brexit Conservative supporters in metropolitan areas didn’t defect en masse.
That gamble appears to have paid off, despite roughly half the country favoring staying in the EU. The reason: Mr. Johnson managed to unite the pro-Brexit vote behind his party. The anti-Brexit vote, meanwhile, was split between Labour and a cluster of smaller parties.
With the victory, the Conservatives have become the first British political party in more than 100 years to increase its seat total after three terms in office.
Congratulations to Boris Johnson on his great WIN! Britain and the United States will now be free to strike a massive new Trade Deal after BREXIT. This deal has the potential to be far bigger and more lucrative than any deal that could be made with the E.U. Celebrate Boris!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2019