LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson secured a comfortable majority in Parliament, according to a BBC exit poll Thursday after an election that pitted Johnson’s plan to “get Brexit done” against opposition parties who wanted to delay Britain’s departure from the European Union or even cancel it altogether.
The result, if confirmed, probably paves the way forJohnson to push through Brexit on Jan. 31 after three years of divisive and acrimonious debate by lawmakers over whether Britain should leave a bloc it joined more than four decades ago.
Results are expected in the early hours of Friday.
The Conservatives were predicted to win 368 out of a possible 650 seats, which would be the party’s best performance in an election since Margaret Thatcher in 1987. The result, if it holds, marks a terrible day for the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn and those hoping to delay or overturn Brexit.
The Labour Party was forecast to win fewer than 200 seats, its worst showing in decades. Exit polls in the past few British elections have been accurate.
The vote was Britain’s first winter general election for nearly a century and its fourth national ballot in less than five years. Though it was not formally directly connected to Brexit, Johnson called the vote two years ahead of time in an attempt to gain a working majority to break a parliamentary deadlock over the nation’s EU exit.
The results showed that three years after Britain narrowly voted to leave the EU, the nation is as divided over Brexit as it was in 2016.
Conservatives made gains in traditional Labour strongholds in northern England. In Scotland, the pro-EU Scottish National Party was forecast to make gains.
“We’re fed up. This just needs to be over,” said Julie Ames, 30, who works in a hair salon, as she made her way to a voting station south of Britain’s capital Thursday.
British electoral law prohibits revealing details about how another person has voted. Posts on social media indicated long lines at some voting stations, which is unusual in Britain. It could suggest that turnout was higher than anticipated.
The vote comes amid allegations of disinformation campaigns and falsehoods disseminated by the main political parties. Johnson’s Conservative Party has done more than any other group to stretch the limits of truth and transparency, according to a study by First Draft, a media watchdog. It found that nearly 90% of Facebook ads paid for by the Conservatives in the first few days of December contained misleading claims.
Over the period, the Conservative Party created more than 6,000 ads.
Corbyn, 70, had put the preservation of Britain’s cherished state-funded National Health Service (HNS) at the center of his campaign. The Labour Party argued that Brexit would cause the NHS to be opened up to U.S. pharmaceutical and technology firms as part of Johnson’s drive to create a lower-taxed, more lightly regulated post-Brexit Britain. Johnson has repeatedly disputed that claim, though he had a record of being pro-big business and pro-development when he was London’s mayor from 2008-2016.
“Standing behind the NHS is a kind of secular religion for all Britons,” said Richard Whitman, a political scientist at the University of Kent.
Whitman said the election was a choice between retaining close economic and political ties with Europe or moving closer to the United States as a consequence of an expected trade deal the two nations would sign after Brexit.
A U.S. tilt seems inevitable, he said. Johnson’s close relationship with President Donald Trump remains undisturbed.
The British pound surged more than 2% against the U.S. dollar as the exit poll was unveiled.
Johnson focused almost exclusively on Brexit throughout his campaign.
“If we can get a working majority, we have a deal, it’s ready to go,” Johnson said before the vote during his final campaign appearance in central England.
“We put it in, slam it in the oven, take it out, and there it is – get Brexit done,” the prime minister said as he watched pies being baked at a catering company.
Corbyn said at his final campaign rally this week, “My message to all those voters who are still undecided is that you can vote for hope in this election.”
Though that hope ran out Thursday, Brexit will be far from complete Feb. 1.
Even if Johnson succeeds in formally dragging Britain out of the alliance, it will be just the start of a deeper EU separation process likely to include tense negotiations over trade, borders, agriculture, security and other issues that could last several years.
On Twitter, Jess Phillips, a Labour Party politician who represents a constituency in Birmingham in central England, said, “There are very few words for how heartbroken I am for the community I represent.”
The outcome of Thursday’s vote could have major consequences for the United Kingdom’s union of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU in 2016, and political leaders there threatened to call an independence vote if Brexit takes place.
“The Brexit battle is over. Britain will now formally leave the European Union. And the European Union will contract for the first time. ‘Remain’ will have to transform to ‘Rejoin.’ And that will be a much harder, longer and perhaps generational struggle,” said Matthew Goodwin, a political expert at Chatham House, a think tank.