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U.K. Election 2019: Boris Back As Conservatives Win Big in Parliament

(AFP) Boris Johnson appears empowered to lead Britain through Brexit in January, its most momentous transition since World War II.

Credit…Tolga Akmen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Prime Minister Boris Johnson won an overall majority for his Conservative Party in Parliament on Thursday, as general election results suggested his campaigning on one issue — Brexit — had paid off for the party among voters.

Mr. Johnson should have the support he needs to take Britain out of the European Union early next year, a huge victory for him after months of division, vitriol and chaos at home over how to complete the divorce with the Continent.

Now Mr. Johnson, whose bare-knuckled tactics in the Brexit battle provoked a rebellion in his own party and a rebuke from the Supreme Court, appears poised to lead Britain through its most significant transition in 50 years.

At his constituency early Friday, he said that it looked as though his government had received “a powerful new mandate to get Brexit done.”

Updating its exit poll with official results, the BBC projected that the Conservatives would win about 365 seats in the House of Commons, and that the opposition Labour Party would win about 196: a 74-seat majority for the Conservatives. The poll, conducted by the BBC and the broadcasters ITV and Sky News, was not a final result but is considered generally reliable.

As of 5 a.m. in London, about 600 of Parliament’s 650 seats had been declared, according to the BBC.

Holding a minority government and facing intractable opposition in Parliament, Mr. Johnson gambled that a general election could reshuffle the cards in his favor, and win support for the Brexit plan he negotiated with the European Union. His predecessor, Theresa May, similarly sought to improve her position with a general election in 2017 — only to see her plan backfire.

This time, the vote seems likely to influence Britain’s immediate future.

It seemed certain to quash what hope “Remainers” still had for a second referendum. It would free Mr. Johnson from relying on lawmakers from Northern Ireland who had propped up his government — and opposed the terms of his Brexit plan. And it was a crushing blow to the Labour Party, which is projected to have one of its worst defeats in decades.

“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.”

Mr. Johnson will face a withered opposition in the Labour Party, which had trailed the Conservatives in polls throughout the election campaign. Labour’s apparent collapse on Election Day is likely to draw calls for the resignation of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Credit…Peter Summers/Getty Images

Speaking to supporters in the borough of Islington early Friday morning, Jeremy Corbyn said he would not lead the Labour Party in “any future general election campaign,” acknowledging the emphatic defeat his party suffered.

But Mr. Corbyn said he would stay on as leader for the time being, saying he wanted to ensure a process “of reflection on this result and on the policies that the party will take going forward.”

He added, “I will lead the party during that period to ensure that discussion takes place, and we move on into the future.”

Even if the exit poll is marginally off, the opposition Labour Party seems headed for a historically bad defeat, an outcome so damaging that it has put Mr. Corbyn under huge pressure to resign. In his statement, Mr. Corbyn called it “a very disappointing night.”

If the exit poll holds up, the Conservatives’ significant 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.

The centrist Liberal Democrats, who campaigned against Brexit and were once touted as potential kingmakers in Parliament, also experienced major losses. Their defeated candidates included the party leader, Jo Swinson, who lost her seat to a member of the Scottish National Party.

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

As to Mr. Corbyn’s future, he promised “appropriate decisions,” but blamed the projected outcome on the election’s being dominated by Brexit rather than Mr. Corbyn’s agenda of nationalizations, 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 World War II — 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

Credit…Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party wasn’t the only projected big winner in the general election on Thursday. The other, the exit poll says, was Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, known as the S.N.P.

That could spell trouble for Mr. Johnson down the road.

The S.N.P.’s projected win of 52 of Scotland’s 59 seats would exceed all expectations and put the party in a position of almost total dominance in Scottish politics. The authors of the exit poll warned that their data from Scotland was the least extensive, and therefore should be treated with more caution.

If the findings are correct, however, that would mean that once Mr. Johnson breaks the deadlock on Brexit, which seems all but inevitable now, he may well confront a growing constitutional crisis over Scottish independence.

Mr. Johnson is unpopular in Scotland, where his bumbling, upper-class, English persona tends to go down badly. But the Tories had expected to hold many of their 13 seats there by playing up their opposition to Scottish independence, on which public opinion there is about evenly split.

The exit poll suggested, however, that most Scottish voters placed greater emphasis on stopping Brexit. With that now certain to proceed, the tensions between London and Edinburgh are almost certain to increase.

In her first reaction to the exit poll, Ms. Sturgeon was guarded, arguing that while it suggested a good night for the S.N.P., “it is just an exit poll and there are many marginals, so let’s just wait and see.”

She added in a Twitter post, “What it indicates UK wide though is grim.”

The result, if it holds up, would be the second best in the S.N.P.’s history, just one short of the 56 seats it secured in 2015 before it fell back to 35 two years later.

Mr. Johnson has ruled out the possibility of another vote on Scottish independence, which was rejected in a 2014 referendum. But Ms. Sturgeon, citing the changed circumstances introduced by Brexit, has demanded the right to hold another vote.

Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

In the Lexington, a Central London pub near a Labour Party stronghold, hundreds of people waited for a towering projector to display the results of the first exit poll of Britain’s general election — what many had called the most important in a generation.

“Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!” some chanted, invoking the name if their party leader, who holds a seat in nearby Islington.

In the moments before the poll was released, an excited countdown filled the pub — “five, four, three, two, one” — only to evaporate in a collective gasp. Then there was near silence as the Londoners registered what the poll had showed: one of the worst defeats for Labour in years.

“I quit smoking, but I really need a cigarette right now,” said Ashley Cory, 31, a systems manager.

A woman named Sara, who did not want to give her last name because she works for the National Health Service, said she felt sick. “I don’t think people understand the impact,” she said.

Some held out hope that the poll’s projection would prove off when the official counts rolled in.

“They have gotten it wrong before,” said Michela Bertaglia, a 42-year-old production manager. She said she had voted for Labour, hoping for a hung Parliament, although she does not truly trust Mr. Corbyn, whom she called “too far left.”

James Lancaster, a 28-year-old Conservative parish councilor from Hitchin and Harpenden, let out a scream of delight at the sight of the exit poll. That made him a distinct minority in the pub, now seething with disgruntled Labour voters.

“I’m impressed,” Mr. Lancaster said, though he thought the final margin would narrow. He said he liked Prime Minister Johnson. “He’s got faults like every leader,” he said, “but he is a powerful person.”

Mr. Lancaster said he managed to make a new friend in the room, a Labour voter named Steve Pitt, despite the rancor that has pervaded British politics in the last few months.

“Politics does matter, but it’s really important to talk about it with the people behind the policies,” said Mr. Pitt, 33.

“I even bought his drink,” Mr. Lancaster said.

Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

In a corner of Central London in the very early hours of Friday, all eyes were on the constituency of North Swindon, a two-hour drive to the west: Its results were declared for Louis Tomlinson, a Conservative who has held that seat since 2010.

Jovial uproar and cheers filled the room, on an upstairs floor of the sports bar Rileys, where Conservative voters were relishing the huge gains their party had made. With each new constituency the Conservatives won, the crowd broke into chants of their leader’s first name: “Boris, Boris, Boris.”

“We’re happy, I think we saved the country,” Mahyar Tousi, 31, a Conservative supporter, said on Thursday at the bar, where Conservative Progression, a self-described “community for Conservative activists,” held a results-watching party that featured a life-size cutout of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Mr. Tousi said that earlier on Thursday he had thought the election would result in a hung Parliament. But then the first exit poll came out. “We were shocked, jumping up and down,” he added.

“I wanted another 2015 and I got one,” said Maria Murphy, 23, adding that she had watched the results of that election, which had ended with a surprising win for the Conservative Party, in the same room.

Robert Humber, 37, said that he was “quite apprehensive” before the exit poll, because “everyone was saying how close it would be.”

But his nervousness was soon replaced, he said, by “absolute astonishment and delight.”

Eno Mwamba, a 28-year-old banker, said that Brexit had won the election. Mr. Mwamba compared the Conservatives’ success with the struggling performance of the Liberal Democrats, who had campaigned on keeping Britain in the European Union with a slogan of “Stop Brexit. Build a brighter future.”

“How well have the Lib Dems been doing,” he asked, “and what was their slogan?”

In contrast, Mr. Johnson had campaigned almost solely on taking Britain out of the bloc. “Brexit will actually get done,” said Felicity Juckes, a 23-year-old party member.

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 — Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party put the issue at the center of its campaign and vowed to “get Brexit done” — other major issues may determine the outcome. The opposition Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, had focused on health care and had framed itself as the defender of the cherished National Health Service.

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 a.m., just an hour after the polls opened.

Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

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 behavior and content has come from the political parties and candidates themselves.

MANIPULATIVE TACTICS

The use of disinformation techniques by political leaders, particularly Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 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.”

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