UK Election 2019: With Conservatives headed for a strong majority, Brexit is well and truly back on the menu

Voters appear to have given Conservatives a strong majority

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party appeared to be on course for a solid majority in the British Parliament in the General Election, according to an exit poll — a victory that would pave the way for Britain's exit from the European Union in less than two months.

For the prime minister, whose brief tenure has been marked by legal reversals, scorched-earth politics and unrelenting chaos, it would be an extraordinary vindication. Defying predictions that he would be tossed out of his job, Johnson now seems likely to lead Britain through its most momentous transition since the Second World War.

According to the exit poll, the Conservatives are projected to win 368 seats in the House of Commons, versus 191 for the Labour Party. That would give the Conservatives an 86-seat majority, enough to empower Johnson to pull Britain out of the bloc at the end of January, as he had promised.

The exit poll, conducted by three major British broadcasters, is not a definitive result; the numbers could shift, particularly in closely-fought districts. But it has proved generally reliable, predicting, for example, that Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, would fail to win a majority in 2017.

The British pound rose as much as two percent against the dollar on the projected news. The currency had made steady gains before Thursday’s election, but the rise Thursday took the currency to its strongest level since June 2018.

Many in Britain grumbled about having to go to the polls again so soon, especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas, when the weather is cold and the days are short. But the stakes this time could not have been higher. Unlike the 2017 vote, this election is likely to clarify Britain’s immediate future for the first time since a narrow majority voted to leave the European Union in 2016.

 UK Election 2019: With Conservatives headed for a strong majority, Brexit is well and truly back on the menu

A sign outside a polling station in east London on Thursday. By Andrew Testa © 2019 The New York Times

Johnson's presumed victory would all but extinguish the possibility of Britain’s reversing that decision, a dream that has been nurtured by millions who believe that the 2016 referendum was a catastrophic error and should be rerun. Polls show a slim majority of people would now favor remaining in Europe, though campaigns for a second referendum have consistently fallen short in Parliament.

“Boris Johnson can now start the process of Brexit,” said Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “There will be stability of a kind in British politics and in Britain’s approach to Brexit, although not a single aspect of Brexit will have been sorted out.”

For the Labour Party, which had lagged the Conservatives in the polls throughout the campaign but seemed to be narrowing the gap in the past few days, it would be a bitter, if not particularly surprising, failure.

Its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, may face calls in the coming weeks for his resignation.

A catastrophic defeat is projected for the Labour Party

Even if the exit poll is marginally off, the Opposition Labour Party seems headed for a historically bad defeat, an outcome so damaging that Corbyn would be under huge pressure to resign.

If the exit poll holds up, the Conservatives' 86-seat margin over Labour would be a difference the opposition would have to live with for five years, and it could take a decade or more to overcome, analysts said.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and Corbyn’s close ally, told the BBC on Thursday night that the result, if anywhere near correct, was “extremely disappointing”.

As to Corbyn’s future, he promised “appropriate decisions,” but blamed the projected outcome on the election’s being dominated by Brexit rather than Corbyn’s agenda of nationalisations, tax increases and an enormous rise in social spending.

If Labour’s seat tally dips to 191 as projected, that would make it the party’s weakest performance since before the Second World War — worse than the 1983 result achieved by Michael Foot, who offered the country a left-wing manifesto that was described by one Labour politician at the time as “the longest suicide note in history.”

Though many in Labour were eager to avoid a winter election in the context of Brexit, Corbyn was confident he could repeat his relative success of 2017, when he deprived the Conservatives of a majority. But he apparently failed to capture the magic he had generated in that campaign.

If it is confirmed that the Labour leader failed to win two consecutive general elections, Corbyn’s position would look increasingly untenable. The last party leader to fail twice was Neil Kinnock, who resigned after losing general elections in 1987 and 1992.

There are now likely to be intense discussions inside the Labour Party over tactics for the leadership election that everyone expects, with the left of the party eager to retain its grip.

Official results are expected early on Friday

In the cold and the rain, Britons trudged through the doors of community centers, churches, pubs and former miners’ clubs to cast ballots in a pivotal election underlined by the country’s 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union.

It was the third general election since 2015 and the first to be held in December in nearly 100 years. Voters chose representatives for their local districts in Parliament: 650 lawmakers in all for the House of Commons, which decides the country’s laws and chooses the prime minister.

While Brexit has dominated the campaign — Johnson put the issue at the center of its campaign and vowed to “get Brexit done” — other major issues may determine the outcome. Labour, led by Corbyn, has focused on health care and has framed itself as the defender of the cherished National Health Service.

Polls closed 10 pm British time (3.30 am IST). Official results are expected overnight.

There were long lines in London and beyond

Voters across London described crowded polling stations, posting photographs of the long lines. Few said that their ability to vote was affected, but many noted that such delays were unusual in Britain.

One voter, Ed O’Meara, shared pictures from his polling station, in the Balham and Tooting area of South London, that showed a line stretching out the door and up the road.

A voter at a different polling site in Balham described a 20-minute wait. Those casting ballots outside the capital described similar scenes.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever had to queue and wait outside of a polling station in order to exercise my right,” wrote one Twitter user identified as John E Walsh, who shared a photograph said to be taken in Cambridge.

Under a cold, steady rain in Bolsover, which has voted for Labour since 1950, people trudged through the doors of community centers, churches, pubs and former miners’ clubs to vote.

Having overwhelmingly backed Brexit in the 2016 referendum, the constituency was a prime target of the Conservative Party, and voters Thursday said they largely bought Johnson’s message that democracy demanded Brexit be carried out.

That Johnson may not have been their ideal candidate hardly mattered.

“I think he’s a bit of a bumbler,” Catherine Elliott said outside a polling station in Barlborough, a village in the north of the district, after voting for Johnson.

“I think we just need to get on with Brexit,” Phil Fisher said a short time later. “Maybe we need someone like Boris to succeed.”

A number of lifelong Labour Party voters said they would vote Conservative in the interest of delivering Brexit. Others, though, said attachments to their longtime local Labour lawmaker, Dennis Skinner, ran too deep to change sides.

“He’s a local man; he’s been here for years and years and years, and I don’t think his views change,” Lorraine, who declined to share her last name, said before polls closed. “He’s very solid, forthright and opinionated, and I like what he stands for.”

The University of Essex also shared a video of dozens of students waiting to vote, calling the turnout “fantastic.”

Several voters in the Anfields area of Manchester, England, described long lines, and voters in Edinburgh, Scotland, said that lines had formed outside polling stations by 8 am, just an hour after the polls opened.

News outlets had to obey restrictions on reporting

Once polls opened, British broadcasters and news websites had to pivot. It is illegal for anyone in the country to publish information on how citizens say they have voted — exit polls or forecasts — until after polls close.

A code of conduct laid out by Britain’s communications regulator, Ofcom, specifies that all discussion and analysis of election issues on television and radio must cease once polls open, that no opinion polls can be published and that no coverage of opinion polls is allowed while people are voting.

“When people are going to the polls on Election Day, it’s important that everyone can vote on the same information,” the regulator said.

Forget politics. Dogs turned out at polling stations

#Dogsatpollingstations has become something of an Election Day tradition in Britain, with voters sharing photographs of their pups outside their local polling stations.

Several high-profile voters got in on the action Thursday, with Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, accompanied by his dog, Luna, and Johnson arriving with his dog, Dilyn.

In much of Britain, the dogs and their owners had to brave a cold, wet morning at the polls, but few seemed to mind.

In this campaign, disinformation became ‘normalised’

In the run-up to the election, manipulated Twitter accounts, doctored videos and dodgy websites became part of everyday life in Britain.

When an accurate story about a young boy being forced to lie on the floor in an overcrowded hospital quickly became an election issue, disinformation was at the fore in the form of a social media campaign to discredit the boy’s family.

While questions have been raised about foreign meddling and international disinformation campaigns, a surprising amount of questionable behaviour and content has come from the political parties and candidates themselves.

The use of disinformation techniques by political leaders, particularly the Conservative Party, points to an evolution in how the internet is being used to grab attention, distract the news media, stoke outrage and rally support.

“This is the election where disinformation was normalized,” said Jacob Davey, a senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based group that tracks global disinformation campaigns.

“A few years ago people were looking for a massive coordinated campaign from a hostile state actor. Now, many more actors are getting involved.”

Anti-Semitism and Brexit left Jewish voters torn

The Labour Party was once a natural fit for Jewish voters, but with accusations of anti-Semitism rife, many are left feeling stuck with a choice between lesser evils in the election.

Jewish voters in Britain overwhelmingly opposed Brexit, the issue at the core of Johnson’s Conservative Party campaign, dreading a resurgent far right and the splintering of the European Union.

But they are also reluctant to hand power to Corbyn and his Labour Party after an avalanche of anti-Semitism accusations against the party.

“I feel quite torn,” said Keith Kahn-Harris, a Jewish sociologist and writer. “The issue in the Jewish community at the moment is anti-Semitism is something you can’t hold your nose for, the one thing you can’t overlook, which I understand. But for me, there are multiple things I can’t overlook, and it’s very difficult to know how to balance them.”

The anti-Semitism scandal is “gravely damaging Labour’s reputation as the nice party,” said Glen O’Hara, a historian at Oxford Brookes University.

NYT reporter took a road trip across a divided Britain

As the campaign played out in Britain, a Times reporter, Patrick Kingsley, spent two weeks driving from London to Glasgow, speaking with residents about the state of the nation at this critical moment.

During the 900-mile journey through Britain last month, he tried to make sense of a splintered country in the run-up to the General Election.

“Everywhere I went, it felt as if the country were coming unbound,” he wrote. “For all sorts of reasons, all sorts of people — Leavers and Remainers; blue- and white-collar; Jews and Muslims; English, Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh — felt alienated and unmoored.”

Mark Landler, Stephen Castle, Amie Tsang, Megan Specia, Adam Satariano, Benjamin Mueller and Patrick Kingsley c.2019 The New York Times Company

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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2019 07:36:49 IST