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With overwhelming Conservative win, Boris Johnson can deliver Brexit

The United Kingdom has voted in its third parliamentary election since 2015. The country is sharply divided, and the outcome will result in fundamental changes to British policy for generations to come. Nick Schifrin reports on what appears to be a decisive Conservative victory, according to exit polls, and talks to Chatham House’s Robin Niblett and CSIS’s Heather Conley about what it means.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, Britain has voted in its third parliamentary election since 2015. The choice was stark, and could result in fundamental changes to British policy for generations.

    Nick Schifrin is here with the results.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Analysts believe today was Britain's most consequential vote in a generation, and perhaps since the Second World War. The choice was between a Conservative, or Tory, Party, whose slogan was, "Get Brexit done," and a Labor Party that promised a second referendum on Brexit and a dramatic rewriting of the economy to make it more socialist.

    According to the exit polls, of 650 local districts, the Tories there on the left won 368, giving them a majority of 86. Labor won 191, which is a loss of 71 seats, the Scottish National Party at 55, and the Liberal Democrats at 13.

    This is the biggest Conservative majority since 1987, and the worst Labor result in 85 years.

    To discuss the results from London, Robin Niblett, the director of the British think tank Chatham House, and, from Washington, Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour" to you both.

    Robin Niblett, let me start with you.

    This is an exit poll. It's a projection, but historically reliable. So, assuming it's true, did Britons vote for Boris Johnson, for Brexit, against Jeremy Corbyn, a little bit of all three?

  • Robin Niblett:

    I think definitely for Brexit, and definitely against Jeremy Corbyn, if these numbers are to be seen correctly.

    The fact of the matter is that those who want to see Brexit happen had one choice, which is to vote for the Conservative Party. Those who were stuck still on the remain and wanting to rethink how you could keep the U.K. somehow in the E.U. was split between the Scottish National Party, between the Labor Party and the Lib Dems.

    And, ultimately, that divide, along with deep suspicion of Jeremy Corbyn, by many in the North of England, who traditionally held up that Labor Party vote, really made this, if it's to be believed, a big victory for Boris Johnson.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And we saw Boris Johnson campaign in the north, those traditional Labor strongholds.

    Heather Conley, let me show some video here. This is a styrofoam wall — or Boris Johnson getting into a — into a bulldozer. All right, we don't have the — there it is, Jeremy — Boris Johnson in a bulldozer, "Get Brexit Done." The styrofoam wall said "Gridlock."

    The message, obviously, blunt force on Brexit. Is that what won?

  • Heather Conley:

    Yes, absolutely.

    Robin is right. This was a Brexit election. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labor Party wanted to make this about everything else but Brexit, about the national health care service, about poverty, about improving social status.

    And the — I think the voters were just simply exhausted after three years. I think, also, many voters believe that the 2006 referendum — 2016 referendum, that it was the democratic will of the British people, if even if they didn't agree with it.

    And I think there was concern that rerunning that or somehow trying to annul that decision was wrong. So there may not have been enthusiasm, but I think that the British people say, let's get on with this. Let's get Brexit done. And they wanted to move forward.

    And, again, this really means that there is no more left and right in the U.K. politically. It was really a leave or remain decision. And what is clear is that there is an overwhelming majority to leave the E.U., and Mr. Johnson will get that done.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Robin Niblett, the deadline is January 31 for Brexit. Is there any doubt now that Boris Johnson can meet that deadline?

  • Robin Niblett:

    If the results are as they seem to be, anything — and it looks like the majority is pretty much certain — then the U.K. will leave you by January the 31st, if not even a little bit before then. That is the ultimate deadline by which they are entitled to leave.

    Of course, what then happens is that we enter a probably 12-month period in which the U.K. is somehow going to do a crash deal to complete a free trade agreement. Boris Johnson, at least by redrawing the Theresa May deal and creating a notional border down the Irish Sea, can try to push for a free trade agreement which is a simpler type of agreement.

    But, still, the U.K. is going to enter at least a 12-month period of really intense negotiations. The British will find out pretty quickly that, actually, Brexit is a bit done, the U.K. has left, but, actually, the new agreement part of Brexit is just getting started.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Heather Conley, it seems that that challenge is quite large. So, January, Britain will leave the E.U., begins a transitional period, as Robin was just saying, the deadline for that, December 31.

    But could we be back here in one year talking about Britain once again crashing out?

  • Heather Conley:

    We could.

    So, by July 1, the British government has to request an extension of that transition period. Again, that's to allow — in case the future relationship becomes very difficult, that's to allow a smoother process.

    But, during the campaign, Boris Johnson refused to offer any extension. He is going to — he told us, to get this done. And Robin again is absolutely right. The complexities of negotiating a free trade agreement with the E.U., the average time it takes to negotiate with the E.U. for any country is between seven to nine years.

    This is going to be incredibly fast. And Boris Johnson has said he does not want to be closely aligned with the E.U. in the future. He wants to diverge. And this is actually very problematic and troubling for Northern Ireland, which, although it will remain in the United Kingdom Customs Union, it will be treated differently.

    And over the campaign, Prime Minister Johnson was challenged that there was going to be any paperwork or customs certifications as goods pass between Northern Ireland and the — and Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

    We're about to see how complex this relationship really is. It won't be as simple as the prime minister has made it out to be. And I'm very fearful that this could really unleash some forces in Northern Ireland that could potentially destabilize a very fragile government that has not had a — has not had a power-sharing government for three years.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Robin Niblett, you mentioned Jeremy Corbyn.

    Of course, part of what he was arguing for was a second referendum, but he also talked about nationalization, seizing 10 percent of large firms' equity, a four-day workweek.

    Ultimately, did Britons decided that his platform was too radical?

  • Robin Niblett:

    I think, for many in the U.K., it is too radical, not necessarily for his base, not for many of the true believers in the future of the Labor Party.

    In a way, Boris Johnson not only was offering to the right of his party get Brexit done quickly, but he was promising to the other part of the party a one-nation Toryism, very different from Margaret Thatcher.

    What we could see is Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party in a way squatting on the middle ground of British politics for the next five years, and forcing the Labor Party into a very brutal civil war, looking beyond Jeremy Corbyn, between those who believe in his vision that you have to push further to the left and those who wants to take a more centrist line to try to push Boris Johnson back the other way.

    And, of course, there could be lessons here even for the U.S. election. And people have already tried to draw some parallels there.

    Just one last point, though, on the big challenge here. We have not talked about Scotland. The Scottish National Party regained from 35 to 55 seats out of 59. So we may have had a confirmation in England of the 2016 referendum to leave the E.U., but we have had a repudiation of the 2014 referendum for Scotland to remain in the U.K.

    You have got a very divided Scotland from the United Kingdom after this election.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Robin Niblett of Chatham House, Heather Conley of CSIS, we will have to leave it there.

    Thanks to you both.

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