LONDON—Boris Johnson has won a seismic election victory that will secure him a place in British history alongside the landslides of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and Clement Attlee in 1945.
By promising to deliver Brexit, the Conservatives succeeded in wiping out Labour strongholds that have stood across Britain since the 1930s, securing as many as 368 seats and giving Johnson a majority in the House of Commons of around 76 seats.
Johnson will now lead Britain out of the European Union by the end of next month, ending three agonizing years of uncertainty and fundamentally reshaping the country’s political and economic future.
Speaking before dawn on Friday, Johnson exclaimed: “We’ve done it. We pulled it off!”
“This election means that getting Brexit done is now the irrefutable, irresistible, unarguable decision of the British people.”
As the results were tallied through the night, it became clear that the Conservative vote had increased since the 2017 election, but the decisive factor in Johnson’s stunning win was the total collapse of the Labour vote. The Conservatives have not received as much as 45 percent of the vote since 1970.
Jeremy Corbyn has presided over the loss of huge sections of the Labour Party’s traditional heartlands in the Midlands, Wales, and Northern England, many of which voted in favor of Brexit in 2016. Those areas have been Labour for generations, and Thursday’s election result is likely to represent the party’s worst showing since 1935.
In a speech after 3 a.m. local time, the Labour leader announced that he would stand down, but he said he wanted to stay in position while the party decided how to choose his successor. It remains to be seen how long he will be allowed to do so.
As the recriminations began in the minutes after the shock exit poll was published, Corbyn’s No. 2, John McDonnell, claimed the vote had become “a Brexit election” and that the country had wanted to move on, accepting Johnson’s claim that he would “Get Brexit done.”
That is half the story, but Labour candidates from across the country have also admitted that Corbyn’s brand of radical left-wing politics had been received disastrously by working-class voters in Labour strongholds. A battle within the party erupted in the early hours of Friday morning as Labour MPs clashed over whether the party could simply blame Brexit for their humiliating defeat or if they needed to select a more mainstream successor to Corbyn.
The first big shock result of the night came in Blyth Valley, a northeastern district that was created in 1950 and has been represented by a Labour member of Parliament ever since. With a swing of almost 10 percent, the Conservatives took the seat for the first time.
Ronnie Campbell, who represented the district for 32 years, did warn The Daily Beast earlier this week that the party was in big trouble. “We’re obviously going to take a little bit of a battering,” he said.
He was right. The Tories won dozens of Labour seats, some of which they had not represented since they were founded as constituencies as long ago as 1895.
Campbell blamed the handling of Brexit by Corbyn, a close ally of his on the left of the party for decades. “It could end his leadership and then we’ll get a right-wing leadership and we’re back to Tony Blair and the Blairites,” he said.
To Labour politicians like Campbell and Corbyn, “Blair” is a dirty word that represents centrism and the selling out of the party’s socialist roots.
It seems the British electorate does not agree. The rout of Corbyn—and the loss of millions of working-class voters—means that by the time of the next election, Blair will have been the only Labour leader to win a general election in 50 years.
For generations, Labour has represented a swath of seats that runs diagonally across the country from Blyth westward to North Wales. That hitherto impregnable barrier was known as the “red wall.”
Many of those seats turned Tory blue overnight. Giddy at the scale of his party’s win, Conservative MP Mark Francois told the BBC: “In 1989, Russia’s Berlin Wall came down; in 2019 Labour’s ‘red wall’ came down.”
Corbyn is Britain's least popular party leader since polling records began, with voters complaining about his indecision over Brexit, his extreme policy positions, and his inability to deal with anti-Semitism in the party.
Former Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson said the wall had crumbled because of Corbyn's leadership.
“It’s Corbyn. We knew that in Parliament. We knew he was incapable of leading, we knew he was worse than useless at all the qualities you need to lead a political party,” he told ITV. “The Corbynistas will make an argument that victory is a bourgeois concept, that ‘the only goal for true socialists is glorious bloody defeat.’”
Even in Remain-voting areas, former Labour voters turned their backs on Corbyn. Richard Davis, 61, in the Labour target seat of Chingford and Woodford in northeast London, said his entire family was anti-Brexit but they had voted Conservative in order to stop Corbyn. “I’m in favor of socialist policies, but we can’t have an anti-Semite like Corbyn in power,” he told The Daily Beast.
Boris Johnson’s victory will easily give him enough votes to pass his Brexit deal through the House of Commons in time for the next deadline on Jan. 31. Matters will then become more complex as he attempts to negotiate a trade deal in the remaining 11 months of the transition period, but by then Britain will have officially left the European Union.
The straightforward narrative of getting Brexit done proved decisive, with swings toward the Conservatives particularly pronounced in Leave-voting districts.
With seats falling like dominoes in areas that have been represented by Labour since the 1930s and beyond, Johnson secured a spectacular Conservative victory, the like of which has not been seen since the era of Margaret Thatcher.
Johnson’s controversial and hardline stance on forcing Brexit through, which included shutting down Parliament, misleading the Queen, and sacking 21 of his colleagues, succeeded in convincing the country that he would deliver Brexit if he was returned to power.
Voters overwhelmingly said they did not like Johnson or believe him to be truthful, but they did think he would get Brexit done. In the end, that was enough.
Convinced that they could leverage Brexit to secure a five-year term in office, Johnson and his No. 10 aides pushed hard for an early election in the fall only to be rebuffed by the Remain alliance parties. That changed in late October, when Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson gambled and decided to break with Labour and join the Scottish National Party (SNP) in agreeing to accept the Tory electoral challenge.
Buoyed by a string of positive opinion polls, Swinson began the campaign claiming she could be swept to power as prime minister on a wave of anti-Brexit feeling.
She ended the campaign unemployed after failing to make any headway as a party leader and losing her own district to the SNP.
That surprise result was celebrated wildly by SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon on a remarkable night in which she strengthened her grip north of the border, winning around 50 of Scotland’s available 59 seats.
After the collapse of Labour, that makes Sturgeon the most powerful opposition leader and she is determined to take the fight to Johnson. She responded to the result by renewing calls for another Scottish independence referendum, which will put her at loggerheads with the prime minister. He is in no mood for compromise after securing a crushing victory in England and Wales, but he may find it was easier to “get Brexit done” than to see off the Scottish campaign to break up the union.