Boris Johnson won an emphatic election victory that redraws the political map of Britain and gives the prime minister the mandate he needs to pull the U.K. out of the European Union next month.
The result spectacularly vindicated Johnson’s gamble on a snap election to break the deadlock in Parliament over Brexit, as his Conservatives won their biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher’s in 1987. The pound rose by the most in almost three years as the scale of the victory became clear.
“I urge everyone to find closure and to let the healing begin,” Johnson said in a speech outside his Downing Street office in which he acknowledged the divisive three years since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union. “Here in this people’s government the work is now being stepped up to make 2020 a year of prosperity and growth and hope.”
The outcome was a repudiation of the main opposition Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn and his radical program of state intervention, nationalization of industries and tax rises for the better off. Corbyn announced his intention to resign after a catastrophic run of losses to the Tories in Brexit-supporting districts in northern England and Wales. These areas were considered traditional Labour strongholds and Johnson’s success here was the breakthrough that secured his victory.
Elsewhere, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, who campaigned to remain in the EU, lost her seat.
Having routed political opposition to Brexit across much of the country, Johnson still faces resistance in Scotland, where support for the pro-independence Scottish National Party surged, setting up the prospect of a renewed constitutional standoff over the U.K.’s future.
Northern Ireland may also present a thorn in Johnson’s side. Unionist parties lost their majority and nationalists made advances, suggesting that pressure for a referendum on Irish unity may grow.
Johnson held a solid lead over Labour in polls before Thursday vote, but just how Brexit would play out in the U.K.’s third general election in four years was never certain. What emerged was the biggest shift in British political allegiances for decades as areas that had voted to quit the EU turned away from Labour and toward Johnson and his “Get Brexit Done” mantra.
Corbyn, who had tried to straddle both sides of the divide, said the issue had “taken over” the campaign and cost his party votes. “I did everything I possibly could in order to bridge the divide between those that voted leave and those that voted remain,” he said in a pooled TV interview.
Some defeated candidates disagreed, saying the Labour leader had been raised as a concern by voters more than Brexit. Corbyn said he will talk to the party’s national executive about the process to replace him as leader, which he expects to begin early next year
With all seats declared, the Conservatives had won 365 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, a gain of 48, to Labour’s 203 seats, down 59. The results showed the Conservatives taking some districts from Corbyn’s party for the first time ever, compounding Labour’s fourth successive general election defeat.
Leaders including Angela Merkel of Germany and U.S. President Donald Trump offered their congratulations. Trump, in a tweet, again raised the prospect of a “massive new trade deal” after the U.K. leaves the EU.
Johnson’s majority gives him the power to get his own way on Brexit, especially if he needs extra time to negotiate with the EU. He has said he will start to push legislation through parliament before the end of the year to meet the current departure date of January 31.
Calling the result “historic,” Johnson hailed “a powerful new mandate to get Brexit done.”
Investors responded to what they saw as a possible end to the political gridlock and uncertainty that has hung over British assets for years. The pound surged 1.7% to $1.3387 as of 11:15 a.m. in London. The benchmark FTSE 100 index of stocks jumped 1.9% despite being heavily skewed to exporters vulnerable to currency appreciation. The more domestically-focused FTSE 250 rallied 4.4% to the highest on record as trading volumes soared.
For Labour, the heavy losses raise questions over its future direction after voters decisively rejected Corbyn and his program. Corbyn plans to remain in place until a successor is chosen but he’s facing pressure to stand aside immediately.
“Tonight is an absolute disaster for the Labour Party,” Ian Murray, Labour lawmaker for Edinburgh South, told the BBC. “There has got to be a change of direction. That work either has to start tomorrow or the Labour Party has to reassess what it stands for.”
Few people predicted the political earthquake that took place.
In England and Wales, voters moved to the Conservatives almost everywhere, but particularly strongly in places that voted to leave the EU. Former industrial areas abandoned Labour for the first time in generations, with mining and steel towns that suffered from mass unemployment under the Conservatives in the 1980s now embracing the party.
Scotland, which opposed Brexit in the 2016 referendum, staged a rebellion as the SNP retook seats it lost two years ago. It ended the night with 48 of 59 districts, halving the Tory seat tally, defeating the Liberal Democrat leader and reducing Labour to a solitary district. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon reiterated her demand for another independence referendum, something Johnson has ruled out.
“Boris Johnson has a mandate now to take England out of the EU,” Sturgeon said. “He must accept that I have a mandate to offer Scotland the choice of an alternative future.”
For Johnson, his convincing majority marks the culmination of an extraordinary rise to power. After he led the pro-Brexit campaign three years ago, Johnson watched as Theresa May tried and repeatedly failed to negotiate an EU divorce agreement the House of Commons would accept. Once in power, Johnson secured a revised Brexit deal with the EU, but also couldn’t persuade Parliament to rush it into law.
That prompted him to trigger an early election – the next one wasn’t due until 2022 – in the hope voters would give him the majority he needed. He now has a mandate “not just to get Brexit done,” he said, “but to unite this country and to take it forward and to focus on the priorities of the British people.”
Addressing supporters in London on Friday morning, he said he had a “heavy responsibility” after winning support from former Labour heartlands. “We must rise to the challenge,” he said. Tim Ross, Alex Morales & Greg Ritchie, AP
Scots independence vote must be legal
Scottish National Party Leader Nicola Sturgeon suggested she wouldn’t hold a rebel referendum on independence without the consent of the London government because it would not be legally valid. A vote needs to be sanctioned by the U.K.’s central government in Westminster. “A referendum has to be legal because it has to be accepted and legitimate if we are to win independence,” Sturgeon said in a BBC TV interview. At the same time, Sturgeon said Johnson’s rejection of a second Scottish referendum “won’t hold” because the SNP “overwhelmingly won the election” in Scotland, while Johnson’s Conservatives “got roundly defeated.” Scotland can’t be “imprisoned” in the U.K., she said. “You cannot hold Scotland in the union against its will,” Sturgeon said. “You cannot just lock us in a cupboard and turn the key and hope that everything goes away. If the United Kingdom is to continue, then it can only be by consent.”