Johnson’s Conservatives Garner Impressive Win, Paving Way for Speedy Brexit
LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party appeared to win a decisive parliamentary majority in Thursday’s election, putting the country on track for a historic rupture with the European Union early next year.
With all 650 seats in Parliament up for grabs in the momentous vote, Johnson’s party garnered 362 parliamentary seats, according to exit polls and preliminary results early Friday.
Johnson’s electioneering slogan — “Get Brexit Done” — carried blunt-force appeal in a country wearied by more than three years of paralyzing infighting over when, whether and how to leave the 28-nation European Union.
If the results are borne out, they mark a shattering defeat for those who hoped to stave off the split — and a decisive victory for the bluff and blustery 55-year-old prime minister. An often-polarizing figure, Johnson committed a series of gaffes on the campaign trail, even while charming some voters with stunts such as driving a bulldozer through a plastic-block wall labeled “Gridlock.”
Just before 4 a.m. local time, Johnson celebrated his win in his own constituency, on the western edge of greater London. Though stopping short of claiming overall triumph, he hailed projections pointing to his party’s “powerful new mandate.”
“I want to thank the people of this country for turning out,” he said. Work on the party’s agenda, he said, “will begin tomorrow — not tomorrow, today! Today!”
The British pound jumped in the aftermath of the exit polls, reflecting the desire of businesses to end the Brexit uncertainty — even though experts predict leaving the EU will cause the economy to shrink.
European officials who had long extended an olive branch, hoping to keep Britain in the EU fold, signaled willingness to accept the near-inevitability of the country’s departure from the bloc and to turn attention to working out the terms.
“We are ready to negotiate,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
According to the projections and partial official counts, the main opposition Labor Party will finish with 199 seats, losing in some constituencies it had held for decades. Totals for smaller anti-Brexit parties were predicted in the double digits: a surprisingly strong 55 seats for the Scottish National Party and 13 for the centrist Liberal Democrats, whose leader, Jo Swinson, lost her own parliamentary contest.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labor’s 70-year-old leader, kept his seat in London’s Islington neighborhood. In a subdued early-morning appearance at local party headquarters, he said he would not lead his party in any future election, but did not say whether he would step down immediately as Labor leader.
Without alluding to the scale of defeat, he professed pride in the way the campaign was conducted.
“We did not descend into the gutter,” he said, citing Labor’s message of “hope and justice.”
Analysts said Labor’s effort to stay on the fence over Brexit — promising to negotiate a new withdrawal agreement and then put it to a referendum — fell flat. Combined with Corbyn’s personal unpopularity, it proved a recipe for electoral disaster.
“People didn’t like Corbyn as a person, and (Labor’s) neutral stance on Brexit wasn’t working,” said Matthew Flinders, a politics professor at the University of Sheffield.
If the projections prove correct, they would represent a gain of around four dozen seats for the Conservatives over the last general election, in 2017. But exit polls have sometimes been problematic in the past, and full official results were not expected until early Friday.
Armed with a decisive majority, Johnson has promised he would mount a renewed push to exit the EU by Jan. 31, marking the beginning of the end of more than four decades of closely intertwined trade with partners in Ireland and continental Europe.
Following Britain’s formal withdrawal, complex new arrangements would need to be worked out not only on trade but on a host of other matters, such as the status of EU nationals in Britain. Johnson says that could be done by the end of 2020; critics say that’s unrealistic.
With wet and chilly weather in much of the country on Thursday, and snow in the Scottish Highlands, there were nonetheless long lines at many polling places. Contrasting with the rancor of the campaign, animal-loving Britons revived a voting-day tradition, going on social media to post pictures of pooches waiting while their owners voted, under the hashtag #Dogsatpollingstations.
It was the country’s first December general election in nearly a century — a scenario that parties generally try to avoid. By late afternoon it was already growing dark, though the polls stayed open until 10 p.m.
On Wednesday, the final day of the five-week campaign, leaders of all the main political parties made a last dash around the country, knocking on doors and giving stump speeches. On one point all sides agreed: They painted the vote as the most consequential in a generation.
The vote was also considered one of the most volatile in years, with opinion polls conducted in the days before the election suggesting that millions of people remained undecided. Among Britain’s population of 66 million, 46 million were eligible to vote, including many young people who have reached voting age since the Brexit referendum more than three years ago.
Even though polls have suggested that a slim margin of voters now oppose leaving the EU, the anti-Brexit camp was hampered by its support being divided among several parties. Johnson managed to rally voters exhausted by wrangling that erupted after the June 2016 Brexit referendum, when voters narrowly decided, 52% to 48%, to leave the bloc.
The infighting since then has toppled two prime ministers and divided families and communities. In an effort to break the deadlock, the election was called nearly two years ahead of schedule.
Rather than taking an unambiguous stance against Brexit, Labor sought to highlight social issues, promising heavy investment in the struggling National Health Service, together with schools, housing and transport. The NHS, the country’s universal health care system, became an election tinderbox, with Labor warning that Brexit could leave it in peril of predatory U.S. health companies. Johnson denied that.
The election was unusual in that both Johnson and Corbyn have negative personal-approval ratings, but the Labor leader seemed to have handily won the unpopularity contest. A leadership shakeup in the party seemed nearly inevitable.
Many voters had trust issues with Johnson, who is widely known as being casual with the truth. He dodged high-profile interviews with broadcasters during the campaign and was accused of lacking empathy after refusing to look at an image of a sick 4-year-old boy lying on the floor in an overstretched hospital emergency department.
Corbyn had his own hurdles to overcome. He has been dogged by a persistent strain of anti-Semitism within his party, leading Britain’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, to declare he was unfit for office.
“You never had the Corbyn mania,” said Flinders, the politics professor. “Boris just had to keep his head down.”
Special correspondent Boyle reported from London and Times staff writer King from Washington.
©2019 Los Angeles Times
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