Britain was speeding toward Brexit on Friday after Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a crushing election victory, ending three years of uncertainty since the country decided to leave the bloc.
Exiting the European Union, a goal Johnson has pursued relentlessly since he put himself forward as the face of the victorious “Leave” campaign in a 2016 referendum, is Britain’s biggest leap into the unknown since World War Two.
Johnson is now free to lead his country swiftly out of the vast trading bloc, but faces the daunting task of negotiating trade deals around the world, not least with the EU itself, and of keeping a divided kingdom in one piece.
“We will get Brexit done on time by the 31st of January, no ifs, no buts, no maybes,” a triumphant Johnson told cheering supporters as a grey dawn broke over London.
Later, he went to Buckingham Palace to ask Queen Elizabeth for permission to form a new government - a formal step required under the UK’s constitutional monarchy system.
Overnight, results pouring in from the 650 parliamentary constituencies around the United Kingdom showed that Johnson’s Conservative Party had trounced its main opponent, winning 364 seats to the Labour Party’s 203.
U.S. President Donald Trump was quick to congratulate Johnson.
“Britain and the United States will now be free to strike a massive new Trade Deal after BREXIT. This deal has the potential to be far bigger and more lucrative than any deal that could be made with the E.U.,” Trump wrote on Twitter “Celebrate Boris!”
European politicians were less enthusiastic.
“The British people have decided and we have to accept their choice. With Johnson’s victory Brexit has become inevitable,” said German lawmaker Norbert Roettgen, of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party.
BIGGEST WIN SINCE THATCHER
A vindication for Johnson and his simple campaign message, “Get Brexit Done”, the result represented the biggest House of Commons majority for the Conservatives since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 triumph.
Sterling jumped by 2.5%, its biggest rise in nearly three years, on the first signs of the scale of Johnson’s victory, before giving up some of those gains. Shares in companies that rely on the British economy soared.
The Brexit issue, which has consumed politics and the public debate in Britain since 2016, has eroded traditional party loyalties, dividing the nation along new fault lines of urban vs rural, young vs old, and graduates vs non-graduates.
The Brexit effect was most starkly illustrated by the crumbling of Labour’s so-called Red Wall, a rampart of working class areas across northern and central England where most people had voted “Leave” in 2016.
Frustrated at the country’s failure to quit the EU since then, and at Labour’s equivocal stance on Brexit, large numbers of voters deserted the party and flocked to the Conservatives, leaving the Red Wall full of holes.
“Your hand may have quivered over the ballot paper before you put your cross in the Conservative box,” Johnson told those voters in his victory speech, acknowledging that their support for his party represented a political earthquake.
“You may hope to return to Labour next time round, and if that is the case, I am humbled that you have put your trust in me,” he said, a rare note of humility from a politician best known for his bombastic rhetoric and supreme self-belief.
SCOTLAND REJECTS BREXIT
But it was a very different picture in Scotland, where the anti-Brexit, pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) won 48 out of 59 Commons seats by thrashing both the Conservatives and Labour.
“Boris Johnson may have a mandate to take England out of the European Union. He emphatically does not have a mandate to take Scotland out of the European Union,” said Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader and first minister of Scotland.
With Sturgeon emboldened to step up her campaign for an independence referendum, and Irish nationalists performing strongly in Northern Ireland, the integrity of the United Kingdom looks more precarious than it has for centuries.
Overall, the election results were most damaging for Labour and its veteran socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn, who announced he would step down after a “process of reflection”.
Once a fringe figure on Labour’s far left, Corbyn unexpectedly won the party leadership in 2015 on a wave of grassroots enthusiasm for his radical policies, especially among some young people.
But voters on Thursday unambiguously rejected his program of nationalizations and colossal state spending, delivering Labour’s worst result since 1935.
The party now faces a brutal internal battle between Corbyn’s followers, who are determined to stick to their socialist agenda, and his critics, who want the party to return to the center ground it occupied under former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
In a symbol of Labour’s failure, Blair’s old parliamentary seat of Sedgefield fell to the Conservatives.
It was also a bad night for the strongly anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats, the only party that proposed cancelling Brexit without holding a second referendum.
The plan appeared to backfire, with the party winning only 11 seats. Its leader, Jo Swinson, lost her Scottish seat to the SNP and promptly resigned.