LONDON (AP) — An exit poll in Britain’s election projected that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party will likely win a majority of seats in Parliament, an outcome that would allow Johnson to fulfill his plan to take the UK out of the European Union next month.
The survey predicted the Conservatives will get 368 of the 650 House of Commons seats and the Labour Party 191. It projected 55 for the Scottish National Party and 13 for the Liberal Democrats.
Based on interviews with voters leaving 144 polling stations across the country, the poll is conducted for a consortium of UK broadcasters and regarded as a reliable, though not exact, indicator of the likely result. Actual returns will begin trickling in overnight.
The results would show a large jump for the Conservatives, who currently hold 317 seats, and a devastating plunge for Labour from its current 262 seats.
“Maths is maths,” Conservative party head James Cleverly told Sky News after the poll was released, while expressing caution before celebrating too early.
Labour, however, said it was not prepared to concede defeat yet. “It’s only the very beginning of the night, and it’s too early to call the result,” the party said in a statement. “We, of course, knew this was going to be a challenging election, with Brexit at the forefront of many people’s minds and our country increasingly polarised.”
The result for Labour would represent the worst for the party since World War II, and could spell the end for party leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist who moved his party sharply to the left after taking the helm in 2015, but who now looks to have led his left-of-center party to two electoral defeats since 2017.
“It’s Corbyn,” said former Labour Cabinet minister Alan Johnson, when asked about the poor result. “We knew he was incapable of leading, we knew he was worse than useless at all the qualities you need to lead a political party.”
The 70-year-old left-winger is portrayed by opponents as an aging Marxist with unsavory past associations with Hamas and the IRA.
Corbyn has been hammered in recent years over accusations that he allowed anti-Semitism to fester inside Labour. A recent report from the Jewish branch of his own Labour party accused him of engaging in anti-Semitism on at least nine occassions.
The Labour Against Antisemitism group has documented thousands of cases of alleged anti-Semitic hate speech by members since 2015.
Corbyn has pledged not to tolerate racism within Labour but leaders of British Jewry have said he is himself part of the problem. Critics point to past statements he has made about Israel and Zionists, and the fact that he has called groups like Hamas his “friends.”
The previous chief rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, last year called Corbyn an “anti-Semite.” The current chief rabbi of Britain last month published an op-ed in The Times of London, effectively calling on voters not to vote for Labour over the anti-Semitism issue, saying that Corbyn is “complicit in prejudice.”
Corbyn was also criticized for failing to take a strong enough stance against Brexit, instead focusing his campaign on the plight of the National Health Service, a deeply respected institution that has struggled to meet rising demand after nine years of austerity under Conservative-led governments.
A decisive Conservative win would vindicate Johnson’s decision to press for Thursday’s early election, which was held nearly two years ahead of schedule. He said that if the Conservatives won a majority, he would get Parliament to ratify his Brexit divorce deal and take the U.K. out of the EU by the current Jan. 31 deadline.
The poll suggests that message had strong appeal for Brexit-supporting voters, who turned away from Labour in the party’s traditional heartlands and embraced Johnson’s promise that the Conservatives would “get Brexit done.”
“I think Brexit has dominated, it has dominated everything by the looks of it,” said Labour economy spokesman John McDonnell. “We thought other issues could cut through and there would be a wider debate, from this evidence there clearly wasn’t.”
He said the results, if they bear out, would be “extremely disappointing.”
Johnson did not mention the exit poll as he thanked voters in a tweet. “Thank you to everyone across our great country who voted, who volunteered, who stood as candidate,” he said. “We live in the greatest democracy in the world.”
Thank you to everyone across our great country who voted, who volunteered, who stood as candidates. We live in the greatest democracy in the world. pic.twitter.com/1MuEMXqWHq
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) December 12, 2019
Conservative Party chairman James Cleverly said he was cautious about the poll, but that if substantiated it would give the party “a big majority” that could be used to “get Brexit done.”
“It would be stratospherically higher than even Conservative optimists had predicted. It’s a very, very, very satisfactory result — if that is the true result,” said John Bercow, a former Conservative lawmaker who served as the previous speaker of the House of Commons, the lower house of the British parliament.
The British pound surged on the news, jumping over two cents against the dollar, to $1.3445, the highest in more than a year and a half. Many investors hope a Conservative win would speed up the Brexit process and ease, at least in the short term, some of the uncertainty that has corroded business confidence since the 2016 referendum.
A decisive Conservative victory would also provide some relief to the EU, which has grown tired of Britain’s Brexit indecision.
“What we said for months was … we need a clarification. This clarification appears to have taken place,” said France’s European affairs minister, Amelie de Montchalin. “The important thing is not the way we divorce but what we are going to build next, the legal framework of our future relationship.”
Three and a half years after the UK voted by 52%-48% to leave the EU, Britons remain split over whether to leave the 28-nation bloc, and lawmakers have proved incapable of agreeing on departure terms.
Johnson pushed for the early election — Britain’s first December vote since 1923 — to try to break the political logjam. He campaigned relentlessly on a promise to “Get Brexit done” by getting Parliament to ratify his “oven-ready” divorce deal with the EU and take Britain out of the bloc as scheduled on Jan. 31.
That would fulfill the decision of the 2016 referendum, and start a new phase of negotiations on future relations between Britain and the 27 remaining EU members.
The Conservatives focused much energy on trying to win in a “red wall” of working-class towns in central and northern England that have elected Labour lawmakers for decades but also voted strongly in 2016 to leave the EU. The Conservatives also have been helped by the Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage, which decided at the last minute not to contest 317 Conservative-held seats to avoid splitting the pro-Brexit vote.
Labour, which is largely but ambiguously pro-EU, faces competition for anti-Brexit voters from the centrist Liberal Democrats, the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, and the Greens.
For many voters, the election offered an unpalatable choice. Both Johnson and Corbyn have personal approval ratings in negative territory, and both have been dogged by questions about their character.
Johnson has been confronted by his past broken promises, lies and offensive statements, from calling the children of single mothers “ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate” to comparing Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to “letter boxes.”
JTA contributed to this report.