Conservatives Win Big In U.K. Elections

Dec 13, 2019
Originally published on December 13, 2019 11:34 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The long, slow Brexit story has just sped up. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party just won a decisive victory in parliamentary elections. This morning, he promised to end three years of political paralysis in the United Kingdom over its exit from the European Union. And he says it's going to happen fast.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: I will put an end to all that nonsense, and we will get Brexit done on time by the 31 of January - no ifs, no buts, no maybes.

MARTIN: The vote represents a major shakeup in British politics. We've got NPR's Frank Langfitt on the line from London. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: No doubt a huge win for Boris Johnson. How did he make it happen?

LANGFITT: Well, he - you know, it's interesting. The Conservatives picked up 47 seats. This is the biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher's win in 1987. And the way he did it was just what you heard, that line he said, get Brexit done. He had a laserlike focus on this slogan, and it was very effective. And the reason for that is also what you were just mentioning earlier, and that is over three years of political paralysis. People are exhausted here. I mean, when I - I've been travelling around the country for the last number of weeks talking to voters, and not only were people who voted in 2016 in the referendum to leave the European Union who wanted out of Europe, those people, it really appealed to, that line from Johnson. But even people who wanted to stay in the European Union felt that the country just needed to move on, even if it would do economic damage, even if they were against this. They just felt enough is enough. And I think that that message really was this - the most important thing that Johnson did in the campaign.

MARTIN: I mean, what happened to Labour? I mean, they ran on a very different kind of platform. But they seem to have just collapsed.

LANGFITT: Yeah, they did. They - and I thought they would do badly. I didn't think they would do as badly as they did. Rachel, it's the worst showing since 1935 for them. So they have dug a deep hole for themselves. And there are two things that happened here. One is that Jeremy Corbyn remarkably - I understand why he did it - he would not take a position on Brexit, which, of course, is the biggest issue to face the country in decades. And the reason he did that is he had voters, Labour voters on both sides, who had different feelings. He didn't want to alienate either side. So his platform, which was very hard to explain on the doorstep - as people say here in British politics, you know, when you're kind of pitching to ordinary voters - he said, what we'll do is I'll get a new withdrawal agreement, I'll renegotiate this with Brussels, and then we will take it back to the people for a referendum, either to accept it or stay in the European Union. That just did not sell.

The other thing is that Corbyn politically is pretty far to the left here. He wanted to nationalize the railroads, which are problematic. Corbyn has a point. But he was also talking about tuition-free universities, which is very appealing, but people weren't sure that they could pay for it. And he also - his negative ratings were 61% in a recent poll. So he really was a drag on the party.

MARTIN: Explain how this changes British politics. I mean, Johnson really carved together this surprising coalition representing a real change in the political landscape, right?

LANGFITT: Yeah. I mean, I think the political landscape is completely revamped. And what I'd like to focus on is what's known as the red wall up north of here in the north of England and in the Midlands, even northern Wales. Labour had this sort of traditional heartland - industrial, coal mining, factories, things like that - that they'd always been able to rely on. And a lot of them had voted to leave the EU. And so Johnson was able to really go after that area and pick up very big wins. And it's very reminiscent, actually, of what Donald Trump did in 2016 in the upper Midwest. And, of course, that cost the Democrats the White House.

MARTIN: The other big story of election night was the strong showing of the Scottish National Party, which ran on this platform of holding another referendum on Scottish independence. How likely is that?

LANGFITT: Well, not anytime soon, but this is a very serious issue. And I think people are expecting, in the next couple of years, you're going to see a constitutional showdown between Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, and Boris Johnson. What Nicola Sturgeon is already arguing this morning, because they did very well, is that this was a vote for another independence referendum. And their argument up in Scotland, the Scottish National Party, is we voted to stay in the EU. You're dragging us out. We want an option to choose our own path. So in the next couple of years, I think that is going to come to head one way or the other. So it's interesting that you talk about Brexit getting done. It's not done at all. The tremors, the reverberation of this, is going to go on for a long time.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from London. Thank you so much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.