(CN) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a divisive politician with a flair for clownish antics and a master of sloganeering, secured a landslide election victory Thursday night and is on course to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union by the end of January.
As of early Friday morning, with two seats left to declare, Johnson and his Tories had won 363 seats in the House of Commons out of a total of 650, trouncing the Labour Party, which had secured 203.
Such a result gives Johnson the votes he needs in Parliament to take the U.K. out of the EU by Jan. 31 and set the stage for a major shakeup in European and world affairs.
The result is the biggest win for Tories since the days of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and an emphatic signal from British voters that they want to leave the EU.
In an astounding shift in British politics, the Tories won over large swaths of voters in constituencies in parts of England that had long been held by Labour Party candidates – Labour’s so-called “red wall” in the Midlands, the North and Wales.
These former industrial areas are predominantly working-class districts but also where many people voted in the 2016 Brexit referendum to leave the EU. On Thursday, voters in these districts were ready to ditch Labour because of its ambivalent position on Brexit and back Johnson, who was one of a few British politicians to champion Brexit during the 2016 referendum. Johnson was single-minded in this election with his slogan: “Get Brexit Done.”
The implications of this election are huge for the U.K., Europe and the rest of the world. Johnson is viewed as a right-wing populist politician in the vein of U.S. President Donald Trump and the thumping Johnson win sends a dramatic message that populist politics are alive and well.
As the elections results came in, the huge loser of the night was the main opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of Labour and his socialist platform, who said he would not lead his party into another general election but would remain in place while the party had a “period of reflection.” Corbyn campaigned on a left-wing agenda of social spending and that message appeared to have flopped.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” said John McDonnell, the Labour shadow chancellor, on Sky News television.
McDonnell said Labour struggled to please both wings of its party, which is made up of younger and more urban highly-educated voters who want the U.K. to remain in the EU and its working-class supporters in former industrial areas who see a better future outside of the EU.
“It was always going to be difficult for us to straddle those positions,” McDonnell said.
He said Labour put forward a comprehensive platform on a variety of issues, but that voters appeared to have been lured by Johnson’s simple message that this election was all about pushing the U.K. out of the EU.
“All debate on other issues has been squeezed out by this one issue – Brexit,” he said.
For months Labour struggled to define its position on Brexit and in the campaign pledged to hold a second so-called confirmatory referendum on Brexit if they won the election.
McDonnell was doubtful that a Johnson win would help heal rifts in the country caused by Brexit. Polls have shown that the U.K. is deeply divided – split 50-50 – over whether the U.K. should abandon the EU.
“It is about installing what is generally seen as the most right-wing extreme cabinet that we’ve seen in history,” McDonnell said about Johnson’s government. “I don’t think it will bring the country together.”
Michael Gove, a senior Conservative cabinet minister, said on Sky News that Corbyn appeared to have been “comprehensively rejected by Labour voters” because of his failure to back Brexit.
He also said voters rejected Corbyn’s positions on the economy and defense. Corbyn is a pacifist who has supported the Palestinian cause and campaigned for nuclear disarmament and he called for re-nationalizing some areas of the economy.
“People felt he was not the right person to be the prime minister,” Gove said.
Still, Johnson’s big victory also ushers in many potential problems for the U.K.
Many economists warn that leaving the EU on the terms Johnson is pursuing may seriously hurt the U.K. economy and put at risk the country’s unity.
Scottish nationalist politicians have vowed that they will seek to hold a new independence referendum if the U.K. leaves the EU. Johnson’s Brexit plans also could cause turmoil in Northern Ireland because it may be subject to separate customs and rules than the rest of the U.K., and this could spark new political conflict there.
With a big majority, Johnson likely will be unstoppable in getting his way on Brexit. He plans to leave the EU by Jan. 31 and then negotiate trade deals with both the EU and the United States.
This is considered one of the most momentous periods for the U.K. since the end of World War II and Thursday’s election was called a defining moment. After World War II, the U.K. turned toward Europe for its prosperity and security while its colonial empire dissolved.
Now, the U.K. under Johnson is heading in a new direction where it turns its back on Europe and looks to build new partnerships around the world. One of first priorities for Conservatives is to enter into a trade deal with the U.S., which it was prevented from doing while it was a member of the EU. Individual countries in the EU cannot sign bilateral trade deals.
During the campaign, Corbyn argued that a trade deal with the U.S. would lead to lowered standards on consumers’ rights, food, workers’ rights and lead to the privatization of the U.K.’s national healthcare system.
Johnson, on the other hand, argued that leaving the EU will open up new horizons for the U.K. and “unleash” the country’s potential. Economists are largely skeptical that the U.K. will do better economically if Brexit leads to a fall in trade with the EU due to increased tariffs and diverging standards.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)