LONDON: Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Party was set for a resounding victory in Britain's election, allowing him to deliver Brexit on January 31 in what would be the country's most significant geopolitical move in 70 years.
For Johnson, whose brief tenure in power has been marked by chaotic scenes in parliament and stark division on the streets over Britain's tortuous departure from the European Union, the victory in Thursday's contest is vindication.
Educated at the country's most elite school and recognisable by his bombastic style, the 55-year-old must not only deliver Brexit but also convince Britons that the contentious divorce, which would lead to lengthy trade talks, is worth it.
A decisive Conservative win would mark the ultimate failure of opponents of Brexit who plotted to thwart a 2016 referendum vote through legislative combat in parliament and prompted some of the biggest protests in recent British history.
An exit poll showed the Conservatives winning a landslide 368 seats, more than enough for a comfortable majority in the 650-seat parliament and the biggest Conservative national election win since Margaret Thatcher's 1987 triumph.
"I hope you enjoy a celebration tonight," Johnson told supporters in an email. "With any luck, tomorrow we’ll be getting to work."
If the exit poll is accurate and Johnson's bet on a snap election has paid off, he will swiftly ratify the Brexit deal he struck with the EU so that the United Kingdom can leave on January 31 - 10 months later than initially planned.
But nearly half a century after joining what has become the world's largest trading bloc, Johnson faces the daunting challenge of building new relationships and preserving Britain`s place as a global trading hub.
Sterling surged more than 2% against the dollar and the euro on Thursday as traders piled into the pound. By 2225 GMT, the pound had rocketed as much as 2.5% to $1.3510 GBP=D3 - its biggest one day gain since January 2017.
Labour were forecast by the poll to win 191 seats, the worst result for the party since 1935. The Scottish National Party would win 55 seats and the Liberal Democrats 13, the poll said. The Brexit Party were not forecast to win any.
Official results will be declared over the next seven hours.
In the last five national elections, only one exit poll has got the outcome wrong - in 2015 when the poll predicted a hung parliament when in fact the Conservatives won a majority, taking 14 more seats than forecast.
The Labour Party, led by veteran campaigner Jeremy Corbyn, had offered a second referendum and the prospect of the most radical socialist government in British history.
Labour, if it is defeated by the margins shown in the exit poll, now faces a civil war between the socialists who control it and more moderate factions which will demand power.
John McDonnell, the second most powerful man in the Labour Party, said the election had been dominated by Brexit which has divided the country since 2016.
"What`s clearly come through I think in these results is that this was the Brexit election," he said. "We were hoping a wider range of issues would cut though and have a debate, I don't think that has been the case."
BREXIT FAR FROM OVER
A majority will allow Johnson to lead the United Kingdom out of the club it first joined in 1973. But Brexit is far from over. He faces the daunting task of negotiating a trade agreement with the EU, possibly in just 11 months.
The outcome of the negotiations will shape the future of Britain's $2.7 trillion economy while Brexit could yet threaten the unity of the 312-year-old United Kingdom.
After January 31, Britain will enter a transition period during which it will negotiate a new relationship with the remaining 27 EU states.
This can run until the end of December 2022 under the current rules, but the Conservatives made an election promise not to extend the transition period beyond the end of 2020.
A large majority could give him the political security to extend the trade talks beyond 2020 because he could overrule the Brexit hardliner European Research Group (ERG) faction inside the party.
"The bigger the Tory majority, of course, the less influence over this the ERG and Eurosceptics will have," said Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party. "It will be called Brexit but it won`t really be."
"GET BREXIT DONE"
Johnson called the first Christmas election since 1923 to break what he said was the paralysis of Britain's political system after more than three years of crisis over how, when or even if to leave the European Union.
The face of the victorious "Leave" campaign in the 2016 referendum, Johnson fought the election under the slogan of "Get Brexit Done", promising to end the deadlock and spend more on health, education and the police.
He was helped early in the election by Farage's Brexit Party which stood down hundreds of candidates in a bid to prevent the pro-Brexit vote from being split. Early results showed the Brexit Party had poached a significant number of voters from Labour.
While Brexit framed the election, the slow-motion exit from the EU has variously fatigued, enthused and enraged voters while eroding loyalties to the two major parties.
The exit poll suggests Johnson`s strategy had breached Labour`s so-called "Red Wall" of seats across the Brexit-supporting areas of the Midlands and northern England where he cast his political opponents as the out-of-touch enemies of Brexit.
France's European Affairs Minister Amelie de Montchalin said Europe would have clarity if the exit poll was accurate.
"The most important with Brexit is not the way we divorce, it`s what we build afterwards," she told reporters in Brussels.