- - Thursday, December 12, 2019

LONDON — Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson secured a major victory in Britain’s snap elections Thursday, winning at least 326 seats.

The win ensured that Mr. Johnson would have a large new governing majority in the next Parliament and a clear path to implement his Brexit plan to take the U.K. definitively out of the European Union as early as next month.

The result, according to counts from British media, showed the Conservative Party reaching the threshold with results from dozens of seats yet to be decided.

The first exit polls from the vote on a gray, dreary day here projected nearly 370 seats for the Conservatives in the 650-seat House of Commons, with the leftist opposition Labor Party falling to 191 seats — its worst showing since 1935 — and Mr. Johnson racking up an unassailable governing majority of 80 seats or more. It is likely to give Mr. Johnson, a political ally of President Trump, a much stronger negotiating hand with EU officials both on Brexit and on the trade and economic relationship between London and Brussels in the years to come.

The early exit surveys, which proved highly accurate in recent general elections, also forecast 55 seats for the Scottish National Party and 13 seats for the Liberal Democrats, both parties that want to stop Brexit.

“I hope you enjoy a celebration tonight,” an ebullient-sounding Mr. Johnson told supporters in an email late Thursday night. “With any luck, tomorrow we’ll be getting to work.”

With a message of “Get Brexit Done,” the Conservatives had consistently led in the polls, but the size of the victory suggested by the exit polls surpassed virtually every expectation. Analysts pointed to the clarity of Mr. Johnson’s message and to the weakness of his chief rival, Labor Party opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn.

While cautioning the final count was still to be tabulated, Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverly told Bloomberg News Thursday evening that the vote was an affirmation that Mr. Johnson’s message of “optimism” about getting a good Brexit deal that “clearly resonated with the voters.” With a stable majority, the new government can get “real busy real quick,” he said.

The British pound rose to its highest level since the spring of 2018 as the first preliminary returns leaked out Thursday evening.

The exit poll, based on interviews with voters leaving 144 polling stations across the country, is conducted for a consortium of U.K. broadcasters.

But even with an unexpectedly strong mandate, Mr. Johnson and the new government face some hard questions ahead, both on Brexit and on what kind of country Britain will be as an independent operator.

Some political analysts said a healthy majority will give the wily Mr. Johnson new flexibility to cut a softer Brexit deal to minimize the disruption to the British economy. In Brussels, officials were telling reporters they actually welcomed the clear-cut result, having been frustrated by three years of indecision from London on how and how far the U.K. wanted to separate itself from the 28-nation bloc.

“Britain cannot vote away the problems it faces over Brexit,” said Tim Oliver, a political analyst at Loughborough University London.

The colorful Mr. Johnson ran on a relentlessly simple message while trumpeting an “over-ready” deal he negotiated with other EU leaders just before the campaign clearing the way for the U.K.’s exit. It was a message calculated to appeal to an electorate heartily sick of the Brexit stalemate that has existed since voters first decided to leave the EU more than three years ago.

Mr. Corbyn, perhaps the most leftist leader of a major British political party in generations, tried to sell a more convoluted approach, calling for a six-month pause in renegotiate the EU deal and then a second national referendum on whether to go ahead with Brexit at all. Mr. Corbyn’s Labor Party tried to make the issue about a much broader range of issues, including protecting the national health system and reversing the government’s austerity economic program, but it was hampered by renewed charges that Mr. Corbyn was too far to the left and had tolerated a deep strain of anti-Semitism within the party. There was early speculation that Mr. Corbyn would be forced to step down after Thursday’s crushing result.

The early returns also suggest Britain will avoid what would have been its third hung parliament in a decade. Instead, Mr. Johnson will become prime minister with the largest governing majority in more than three decades. In addition, many of the top pro-EU figures inside the Conservative Party have left the government, making Mr. Johnson’s new majority far more ideologically united.

Passion on both sides was on full display in Thursday’s vote, with many polling places featuring long lines of voters waiting to cast their ballot. Mr. Johnson’s apparent victory was even more surprising as the heavy turnout suggested to some analysts that younger, more anti-Brexit votes were turning out to vote.

Cold and confused

At one London polling station, voters lined up in the cold trying to stay warm — it is the U.K.’s first general election in December in a century — and nearby, last-minute canvassers tried to convince people to vote Conservative, holding signs saying, “Get Brexit Done.”

Nearby, others wore the red buttons reading, “Labour,” and holding placards reading, “Time for real change.”

Lauren Shepherd, a 31-year-old event planner, said she voted for Labor in spite of its polarizing leader.

“I’m not a fan of Corbyn by any means, but I also think the best chance of avoiding a no-deal or hard Brexit is with Labor,” she said. “I also preferred to go with someone more likely to get a majority than a smaller party.”

Like many, Ms. Shepherd said she was most concerned over a hung parliament. “God knows we haven’t got anything done even when there is a majority government. Can you image the disaster now that we have to try and manage this across several parties in power?” she said.

Meanwhile, James Worron, a 41-year-old communications consultant in London, said he voted Conservative in spite of his own deep reservations.

“I think Brexit needs to be done, even though I didn’t vote for it,” he said. “I don’t see how any good can come from a second referendum. I see a Corbyn government as alarmingly unpredictable and extreme.”

Corbyn has a long history of association with extremism and also bullying is at the heart of his allies’ control of the Labour party,” he added. “They would see to control government in the same way. I was wary of Johnson at first, but he has, largely, grown into the role.”

One Labor supporter canvassing voters said the mood was tense: “When I try to speak to people who opposes Brexit, it’s fine,” said Elizabeth Peal, 32, of London, who was wearing the red Labor button. “But speaking to anyone who wants to leave [the EU], even when they are Labour, is hard. They just turn away.”

“This election is just weird,” she added. “It’s like Brexit matters more than the party now.”

Chris Schofield said more than 70 voters were waiting in the Bermondsey and Old Southwark constituency in London.

“It’s about 20 times busier than it was in 2017, and for the locals and Euro elections,” the 27-year-old consultant told the Press Association news agency, the Associated Press reported. “Atmosphere is very London: orderly queuing and no-one is talking to each other!”

Both parties concentrated heavily on a “red wall” of constituencies that have long backed Labor but are also deeply skeptical of the European Union and frustrated that Brexit remains unfinished. Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives were banking heavily on making inroads in those areas.

The campaign also saw traditional party loyalties are being stretched to their limits as the Conservative Party, also known as the Tories, ditches its customary policy of low public expenditure in favor of promises to spend billions of pounds on infrastructure projects, the National Health Service and the pursuit of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Pundits have projected a wide variety of scenarios even as the polls tightened in the final days of the six-week campaign — from a strong, pro-Brexit Conservative majority to a Labor minority government that would essentially try to re-set the clock on Brexit. Smaller parties, from the deeply anti-EU Brexit Party of Nigel Farage to the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, could also profoundly affect that composition of the new Parliament, and how much power Mr. Johnson and Mr. Corbyn will command in the coming weeks.

But even a Conservative majority does not settle what Brexit means as a destination, said Mr. Oliver, with London still needing to negotiate a new economic and trade relationship with Europe while seeking independent trade deals with the U.S. and other countries..

“Johnson’s campaign slogan of ‘Get Brexit done’ makes about as much sense as [former Prime Minister Theresa May’s] slogan of ‘Brexit means Brexit,’” he said. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is like telling a toddler ‘bedtime means bedtime’ and ‘Get Brexit done’ is like saying to the same toddle ‘let’s get bedtime done.’ As any parent or babysitter knows, it’s never that simple.”

Some hard-line Brexiteers were even expressing fears that the size of Mr. Johnson’s win could tempt him to seek a more modified break with the European Union, dashing their hopes of a clean separation from the EU and its social, environmental and immigration policies.

For Labor, the devastating loss meant more years in the political wilderness and what promises to be a painful round of soul-searching.

John McDonnell, Mr. Corbyn’s second-in-command in the party, said Labor’s hopes of broadening the election debate failed against Mr. Johnson’s single-minded focus on the main issue.

“What’s clearly come through I think in these results is that this was the Brexit election,” Mr. McDonnell told reporters. “We were hoping a wider range of issues would cut though and have a debate, I don’t think that has been the case.”

Jabeen Bhatti contributed from Paris and David R. Sands contributed from Washington for this report, which was based in part on wire service accounts.

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