(CN) — Relishing a landslide election victory, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Friday morning that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union by the end of January. Johnson called the Conservative win an “irrefutable” mandate from voters.
“With this mandate and this majority we will at last be able to do what?” he said in a speech to supporters. A chorus of voices shouted out his election slogan: “Get Brexit done!”
Johnson rode this simple and single-minded message to a whopping victory Thursday. The Tories won 365 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, a gain of 48 parliamentarians from the 2017 elections and its best performance since 1987, the last election won by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Labour, the main opposition party, won 203 seats, a loss of 59 seats. Another anti-Brexit party, the Liberal Democrats, won only 11 seats, one fewer than 2017. The Liberal Democratic leader, Jo Swinson, even lost her seat in Scotland.
“This election means getting Brexit done is the irrefutable, irresistible, unarguable decision of the British people,” Johnson said.
Actually, that’s not so clear. Fewer than half the voters — 47% — backed the Conservatives and the Brexit Party, the two parties that favor leaving the EU.
“This is a point to which opponents of Brexit are likely to point in the weeks and months to come,” said John Curtice, a leading election expert, in an analysis for the BBC.
Regardless, Johnson will have the numbers in Parliament to push ahead with Brexit, the biggest shift in British politics since the end of World War II.
In many ways Thursday was a crowning moment for Johnson, a flamboyant mop-haired 55-year-old former journalist and former mayor of London. The son of a former British foreign intelligence agent, Johnson built a reputation by trashing the EU in newspaper columns, often basing his criticisms on half-truths and outright lies. As a correspondent in Brussels for the Daily Telegraph, a Conservative newspaper linked to the old-school Tory party establishment, he voiced the frustrations of a British elite and aristocratic class who feel that Britain’s participation in the European project undermines what is unique about England. Thatcher once called Johnson her favorite journalist.
Johnson is often compared to President Donald Trump. Both have led outrageous private lives and both are accused of being charlatans born in privilege who have ruthlessly ridden working-class anger into the highest political offices. They have both come to power courting fringe right-wing ideas while also appealing to lower-income whites on issues such as immigration and crime.
In the 2016 Brexit referendum, Johnson was one of the few Tory leaders to campaign in favor of taking the U.K. out of the EU. He continues to face allegations that he misled voters in the Brexit referendum by misusing statistics that persuaded people to vote to leave the EU. He used posters that were flat-out lies about how Turkey was joining the EU and would flood Britain with immigrants.
In this campaign, Johnson was more somber and low-key in tone, but again he was accused of twisting facts and distorting the truth when he made pledges to build new hospitals, hire thousands of new nurses and police officers and denied that his Brexit plan would result in customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
In his victory speech, Johnson reveled in his triumph.
“We did it, we pulled it off, we broke the deadlock, we smashed the roadblock,” he said, referring to an impasse over Brexit that has paralyzed Parliament for more than a year.
Since last December, the House of Commons has been deadlocked over Brexit and fallen into acrimonious debates over the merits of leaving or remaining in the EU. The U.K. has been the scene of protests for and against Brexit, nasty politics, mudslinging and political crisis.
“We will get Brexit done on time, by the 31st of January, no ifs, no buts, no maybes,” Johnson said with his new slogan, “The People’s Government,” emblazoned behind him.
He promised to leave “the European Union as one United Kingdom, taking back control of our laws, borders, money, our trade, immigration system, delivering on the democratic mandate of the people.”
On the other side, there was misery for Labour and its left-wing supporters who had held out hope of stopping Johnson and Brexit altogether. On social media, Labour supporters sounded apocalyptic and angry over Johnson’s success and the prospect of living under his leadership for five years.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn attributed his loss to the divisions over Brexit within Labour. Corbyn tried to make the election about more than Brexit, in no small part because his party is divided on the issue. Working-class supporters in the Midlands and Northern England favor leaving the EU, while its middle-class supporters generally want to remain. Corbyn took what he called a “neutral” position on Brexit and that cost him dearly, as Labour’s so-called “red wall” in the heartland, districts that have faithfully voted for Labour, crumbled.
Labour dramatically lost many seats in working-class constituencies in former industrial areas where anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment is strong. Corbyn’s socialist message of fighting inequality and renationalizing parts of the economy, such as railways, failed to rouse support in downtrodden former coal and steel towns.
It might have also been his personality that put off voters. Corbyn is older, more staid and less colorful than the jovial-seeming Johnson, who presents himself as a man of the people despite his privileged background. Both men were unpopular, but Corbyn even more so than Johnson despite the prime minister’s long track record of questionable ethics, lying and political chicanery.
“This is obviously a very disappointing night for the Labour Party,” a dejected and soft-spoken Corbyn said after he secured a win to hold onto his seat representing voters in north London. He said he would step down as Labour leader after a period of “reflection.” There were growing calls within the party for Corbyn to step down soon and allow a new leader challenge Johnson’s Brexit plans.
“Brexit has so polarized and divided debate within this country, it has overridden so much of a normal political debate,” Corbyn said.
He touted Labour’s campaign platform — centered on tax-and-spend policies, large investments on the U.K.’s deteriorated public services, free colleges and a “green industrial revolution” — and said those policies remain popular.
Corbyn also blamed negative media coverage for his poor showing. Britain’s mainstream media is dominated by conservative newspapers and outlets and Corbyn was often portrayed as unpatriotic and dangerous for the country. Corbyn in the past has shown support for the Irish Republican Army, the paramilitary group that waged a terrorist campaign against the U.K.
The Labour leader was also weakened by allegations that he has allowed anti-Semitism to take root in his party. Many Labour members, including Corbyn, are critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Combined with strong anti-capitalist language, both positions have left Labour open to allegations of anti-Semitism.
Now that Johnson has a solid majority in Parliament, he will be nearly unstoppable in pushing the U.K. out of the EU by Jan. 31, a deadline set by EU leaders for the U.K. to withdraw.
But the road ahead is anything but clear.
Johnson and the EU have agreed to negotiate until the end of 2020 the terms of trading and political relations and there are numerous issues that could cause problems.
The EU insists that it wants the U.K. to abide by EU standards if it wants friction-free trade.
“The EU is ready for the next phase,” said Charles Michel, the new president of the European Council and former Belgian prime minister. “We will negotiate a future trade deal which ensures a true level playing field.”
From a European perspective, a “level playing field” means that it will push the U.K. to adopt standards on the environment, taxes, digital privacy and workers’ rights that match those of the EU. But this poses a dilemma for Johnson because he will simultaneously be seeking to sign a major trade deal with the United States and that could force the U.K. to agree to standards that differ from those in the EU.
President Donald Trump touted the benefits of a U.S.-U.K. trade deal.
“Congratulations to Boris Johnson on his great win,” Trump said in a tweet. “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.”
Domestically, Johnson also faces difficulties — most immediately in Scotland, where support is growing to split away from the U.K. and become an independent nation.
In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU, and Scottish politicians have railed against Brexit, calling it a betrayal of Scotland.
Scotland’s dominant party, the Scottish National Party, is pushing for a new independence referendum, which would have to be granted by the British prime minister. The SNP’s aims were bolstered by a dominant showing in Thursday’s election. It picked up 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats in Parliament and won 45% of the vote. That was a gain of 13 seats over 2017.
In 2014, Scotland held an independence referendum, and 55% of voters chose to remain in the U.K., but polls suggest support for independence is growing.
“I say this reluctantly, and I hugely regret this, that Boris Johnson has a mandate to take England out of the European Union,” said Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader. “But he emphatically does not have a mandate to take Scotland out of the European Union.”
She added: “If he’s going to claim a mandate for Brexit, then he cannot deny the mandate the SNP has to offer people in Scotland the choice of something different.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)