Europe Politics

Three words that got Boris Johnson the UK election victory he craved

Key Points
  • The Conservative Party will form the next U.K. government with a strong majority.
  • Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is to step down.
  • The first stage of Brexit now looks on track to happen at the end of January. 
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to supporters at the Copper Box Arena on December 11, 2019 in London, United Kingdom.
Leon Neal | Getty Images News | Getty Images

"Get Brexit done."

Three simple words that resonated with millions of people and propelled Boris Johnson into 10 Downing Street as a U.K. prime minister with a fresh term and a comfortable majority.

The brutal simple message was endlessly repeated by the Conservative Party to a frustrated public — tired of the endless arguing over the result of the 2016 EU referendum.

The Conservatives have 365 MPs (Members of Parliament) and an 80-seat majority over all the other parties combined when the new U.K. Parliament resumes. Labour, meanwhile, will occupy just 203 seats in the 650-strong Parliament, its worst return since 1935.

A Brexit election

The Conservative Party's ruthless message was aligned to a strategy that sought votes from the millions of leave voters in the 2016 referendum. That meant reaching beyond the Tory heartland of southern England and looking to smash the Labour strongholds of Wales and England's midlands and north.

If the Tories were clear and simplistic, then Labour's message got lost in the fog. The opposition party had some initial success by refusing to commit to whether it supported Brexit or not, but ultimately voters tired of the indecision.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn eventually said he would negotiate a new deal and hold a second referendum, but then refused to declare who he would campaign for.

Voters interpreted that as a weak and confusing stance and on Thursday, Labour's so-called "red wall" — a stronghold of seats across the country it has typically controlled — crumbled.

U.K. politics professor at the University of Essex, Paul Whiteley, told CNBC Friday that while Johnson isn't popular by historical standards, he was still a lot more admired than Corbyn.

Whiteley said by phone that Labour's Brexit position had offered a "terrible narrative in the context of a weary electorate."

Cost of Corbyn

Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was emblematic of Labour's apparent muddle.

Many viewed him as too left wing — a Marxist who would ruin the U.K. economy with plans to nationalize key industries. Others felt his political history showed improper sympathies with anti-Israeli groups as well as pro-IRA supporters in Ireland. That led to concerns over weakness on national security.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn attends the launch of the party's election manifesto at Birmingham City University on November 21, 2019 in Birmingham, England.
Christopher Furlong | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Corbyn attempted to shift the U.K. election campaign away from the constitutional question of Brexit onto domestic matters such as the National Health Service and education.

But its manifesto, which included proposals to provide free internet and up spending on health care and education, was decried as too expensive by opponents. Again, Labour and Corbyn had failed to convince.

Labour has now not won an election since 2005, and only one of its leaders, Tony Blair, has won an election in more than 40 years.

Corbyn has announced he will now step down and the battle for control of Labour's leadership and party direction will begin again.

A right-wing country?

Prior to the election, a right-of-center think tank claimed that for the Conservatives to win a majority they would need to target "Workington Man."

This fictional stereotype voted for Brexit, was older, white and northern. It was decried as a rude stereotype but ultimately a total of 27 Labour-held seats in constituencies in the north of England fell to the Tories — including the real town of Workington.

According to data published by the polling company YouGov in August, 28% of Britons describe themselves as left-wing while 25% consider themselves right-wing. A further 19% place themselves in the center and the remaining 29% don't know.

Whiteley said any idea that the U.K had become more right-wing was simplistic and that the electorate, especially in poorer areas, believed two things. First, that Johnson will deliver on improving the lives of people with better social support and employment prospects, and second, that he will deliver Brexit.

A disunited kingdom

The voting trends in England and Wales do not translate to the two other constituents of the United Kingdom — Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) now hold 48 of the 59 available seats north of the border. The SNP campaigned hard against Brexit after the 2016 referendum revealed only a third of Scots wanted to leave the European Union.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon delivers a speech during a media conference at the Scotland House in Brussels as she is on a one day visit to meet with EU officials, on June 29, 2016.
Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt | AFP | Getty Images

The leader of the party, Nicola Sturgeon, said early Friday that the general election result reflects a desire in Scotland to choose its own destiny within Europe and the U.K.

It's expected she will now put pressure on Johnson to accede to a fresh vote on Scottish independence. He is expected to resist, and enmity between the governments in Edinburgh and London will grow.

Whiteley said despite the SNP gains, the prospect of a second referendum now looks more remote as the ruling Conservative Party won't entertain another vote.

"They are just going to turn down the SNP flat," said Whiteley.

Northern Ireland was central to the debate over Brexit as lawmakers wrestled with how to maintain frictionless trade across the U.K. border with sits on the island of Ireland.

Following Thursday's vote, and for the first time ever, nationalist parties now hold more seats than unionist parties. Irish unity will surely come to the fore as a topic and one poll in September showed a slight majority for Irish unification among people in Northern Ireland.

Whiteley claimed that while demographics were moving in the direction of Irish unity, many supporters want to wait for fear that rushing the process could herald a return to violence in Ireland.