In perhaps the most important election in the United Kingdom since the end of World War II, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has won a landslide victory, claiming a mandate to deliver on his pledge to take the country out of the European Union. The win is the biggest for the ruling Conservative Party since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and the drubbing will force Labour to reassess its future. Johnson’s biggest challenge now is not delivering on his Brexit promise — a job that is only just beginning — but to unite a country deeply divided and restore his own credibility.
Great Britain has been virtually paralyzed since the June 2016 referendum in which a slim majority voted for Brexit. To break the deadlock, then-Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election in June 2017, a disastrous decision that cost her party its majority in Parliament. She soldiered on but was unable to muster a majority to support her Brexit deal with the EU and threw in the towel in June, allowing Johnson to take the helm of the party.
His efforts to push Brexit through Parliament also failed, and in a final desperate gesture, called for another election, believing that it would deliver a mandate to leave the EU. The gamble paid off.
As most votes were counted from Thursday’s ballot, the conservatives had won 363 seats in the House of Commons, a gain of more than 60 seats, well outpacing predictions. Labour, the main opposition party, looked set to claim 203, a loss of 40 seats. With 326 seats needed for a majority, Johnson is well positioned to push his agenda through the legislature.
Two issues dominated the election. The first was Brexit. Simply put, Britain is suffering from “Brexit fatigue,” with increasing numbers of citizens, including those who voted to remain in the EU, ready to back a party that would deliver on the referendum results and end the national nightmare created by indecision and incessant political jockeying.
The second big issue was the men leading the two major parties: Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, a hard-line leftist who headed the Labour ticket. While Johnson was widely viewed to be a serial fabricator, unserious and unprincipled, Corbyn was considered too socialist for most Britons and the party agenda, which featured the nationalization of key industries and called for a second Brexit referendum, too radical. In many ways, voters opted for the devil they knew. Corbyn was re-elected but announced after the results were in that he would step down as Labour leader in the future.
Johnson has a mandate for his Brexit policy, but he must implement it and that promises to be a challenge, especially as he navigates the treacherous waters that divide the U.K., Northern Ireland and Ireland. And, more importantly, he has negotiated only the terms of the U.K.’s withdrawal from the EU — step one in a long process. Next up is agreement on the future relationship between the two. Those talks could take long, and will tax a negotiating team that is inexperienced (international economic and trade talks have been handled by EU negotiators, a feature of union membership) and will be quickly overburdened as London has to re-create all of its relationships with trade partners after Brexit.
A big win means Johnson can negotiate with confidence and not worry about losing legislators on every detail. It is harder for his supporters to hold him hostage to their demands. However, he must be worried about the Scottish National Party’s strong showing. The party is projected to win 49 of Scotland’s 59 seats, a pickup of more than a dozen slots. Scots are strong supporters of the EU and while Johnson has said there will be no second referendum on Scottish independence, the party’s increasingly strong hand and Johnson’s own foibles may make it harder to avoid another vote.
The most important outcome of the election is the certainty that it provides regarding Brexit. The serial failures to deliver on the various agreements nurtured hope that a second referendum might be possible and the initial decision reversed. That is impossible now.
While withdrawal upends the plans and strategies of hundreds of Japanese companies that had invested in the U.K. to gain access to the European market, those same companies are eager for finality. They now have it. They have a better sense of what the future holds and can plan accordingly. Meanwhile, the Japanese government must accelerate its thinking about the nature of its relationship with a Britain that has left the EU. Tokyo is a priority diplomatic target for London and it must endeavor to shape the ensuing relationship as much as possible.