Exulting in his party’s sweeping election victory, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed Friday to swiftly steer the country out of the European Union — a move his vanquished foes acknowledge is now inevitable.
With the vote-counting virtually complete, Johnson’s Conservative Party secured its biggest parliamentary majority in more than 30 years, while the main opposition Labor’s share of seats in the 650-member House of Commons plunged to the lowest level since 1935.
But the prime minister will face enormous challenges as he tries to hold the United Kingdom together amid deep Brexit-related fissures in Scotland and Northern Ireland. And the formal exit from the bloc, now set for Jan. 31, will serve to mark the beginning of what are expected to be tortuous trade negotiations with the EU.
Even so, investors were euphoric, with stocks and the British pound buoyed by relief over the breaking of the Brexit deadlock, with all its attendant uncertainty.
“We did it — we pulled it off, didn’t we?” a gleeful Johnson told supporters on Friday. He called leaving the EU the “irrefutable, irresistible, unarguable decision” of the voters.
President Trump weighed in with congratulations, declaring on Twitter that “Britain and the United States will now be free to strike a massive new trade deal.” Trump has consistently cheered Britain’s planned break with the EU, discomfiting European allies like Germany and France.
Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn resisted calls to step down immediately in the wake of his party’s crushing defeat, saying a “process of reflection” was in order. Many within the Labor ranks blamed the election debacle on the party’s muddled message on Brexit, coupled with the 70-year-old party leader’s personal unpopularity and a far-left social agenda.
“I’m very sad for many people in this country,” a wan-looking Corbyn told the BBC.
Another casualty was Jo Swinson, leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, who quit as party leader after a disappointing showing that included the loss of her own parliamentary seat. The party campaigned on an anti-Brexit platform, but failed to form an alliance with Labor to avoid splitting the anti-Johnson vote.
“Next week is the shortest day,” Swinson said, alluding to the scant hours of winter daylight in northern climes. “We will see more light in the future.”
Johnson paid a visit to Buckingham Palace to secure the queen’s consent for forming a government. Greeted by sustained cheers from colleagues upon his return to Downing Street, he and his backers swiftly rebranded his new administration “the people’s government.”
But even as he touted unity, Johnson faced an immediate challenge from the Scottish National Party. The nationalist party’s strong showing in Scotland was described by its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, as an unambiguous rebuke of the prime minister and his Brexit plans.
“Scotland has rejected Boris Johnson,” said Sturgeon, who has pledged to seek a second independence referendum, a redo of the failed 2014 effort to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom. Johnson has flatly ruled out another independence vote, which could set up a constitutional confrontation.
With results declared in 649 of the 650 parliamentary races, the Conservatives had 364 seats to Labor’s 203. The Conservatives made deep inroads into traditional Labor territory in northern England, seizing seats that had been Labor-held for decades.
The election, held two years ahead of schedule, was a raucous, rancorous affair, with scorched-earth social media campaigns and mutual accusations of bad faith and untruths.
Britain has been locked in discord since the country narrowly voted in 2016 to leave the EU. Parliament repeatedly rejected plans negotiated by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May. Johnson, who took over in July after an internal party leadership vote, finally managed to secure preliminary approval for a renegotiated withdrawal accord, although lawmakers rejected his timetable and Britain missed an end-of-October deadline.
The prime minister could put forward a version of the withdrawal plan by the end of next week, setting the stage for a departure by Jan. 31, the new deadline.
Once Britain formally exits the EU, Johnson says he will negotiate a comprehensive new accord with the bloc before the end of 2020. But the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said Friday that was an “extremely short” window for such a monumental task.
“It’s not only about trade,” she told a news conference in Brussels. “We are also speaking about education, transport, fisheries — many, many other fields are in the portfolio to be negotiated.”
Special correspondent Boyle reported from London and staff writer King from Washington.