The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Boris Johnson is betting he can realign British politics. He may be right.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seen during a visit to Metropolitan Police training college in Hendon, north London on Thursday. (Aaron Chown/AP)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has finally convinced Parliament to call the general election he has long sought. While most observers call this a massive gamble, odds are Johnson will again surprise his critics and be returned with a significant majority.

Polls show Johnson’s Conservative Party leading by significant margins. The current polling average from the Guardian gives them a 12-point lead over the left-wing Labour Party and a 20-point lead over the centrist, anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats. Most importantly for Johnson, it shows support for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has collapsed to a mere 11 percent. This means that Conservatives have largely consolidated the pro-Brexit vote in their camp while the anti-Brexit vote remains divided.

This division is the key to understanding Johnson’s optimism. Britain, like the United States, elects its representatives in single-member districts in what is called the “first-past-the-post” system. That means that whomever has the most votes wins even if that person is well short of majority. As long as the anti-Brexit voters are divided and pro-Brexit forces are mainly voting Conservative, Johnson’s allies could win a majority of seats with well less than a majority of votes.

These early polls, however, could change. That’s what happened in the 2017 general election, when then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives blew early leads of more than 20 points to win by a mere 2 percent, losing her party’s parliamentary majority in the process. Back then, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn energized young voters and consolidated anti-Brexit voters behind his party, and shocked pundits with his strong showing. He backed Johnson’s election gambit this week despite polls showing him to be one of the most unpopular opposition leaders in British history, in part because of his confidence that he can do this again.

Follow Henry Olsen's opinionsFollow

The election itself will be extremely difficult to forecast because of the stark regional divisions in the British electorate. In Scotland, for example, the dominant party is the vociferously anti-Brexit Scottish Nationalist Party. Scotland voted to stay in the European Union by a 62 to 38 percent margin. Conservatives currently hold 13 seats in Scotland and are expected to lose most of them to the SNP.

Johnson will also likely lose a number of ancestrally Conservative seats in anti-Brexit regions of England. The Tories lost the upper-class Kensington seat in 2017 and saw their margins in other wealthy, anti-Brexit London-area seats drop precipitously. The divided opposition could help them retain some of these, but that is unlikely.

That means Johnson’s hopes for a firm majority rest on his doing something no Tory leader has done for decades: win ancestrally Labour seats in pro-Brexit, working-class regions. Places such as Stoke-on-Trent and the Birmingham suburbs of West Bromwich and Wolverhampton will be key battlegrounds as voters decide if class-based economic issues that have traditionally favored Labour or Brexit will prevail.

Johnson’s team is well aware of this challenge, and is prepared to run on a platform with so much public spending that it has been called “Labour-lite.” Home Secretary Priti Patel is also launching a high-profile, anti-crime campaign to combat rising levels of violence. The combination of policies — tough on crime, tough on Europe, spending on social services and transportation projects in working-class regions — is aimed squarely at the working-class voter. If Johnson pulls this off, he will not only have secured his majority, but also he might have realigned British politics for a decade or more.

Johnson’s critics have consistently underestimated him during his short tenure. Conservatives rose in the polls, even as he lost vote after vote in the House of Commons. Each defeat simply proved to the pro-Brexit voter that he was fighting the elites that looked down on them and seek to undo the Brexit referendum result. There’s a reason President Trump sees a kindred spirit in the disheveled prime minister.

Trump and Johnson share another bond: reliance on political geography. Trump is president despite losing the popular vote because his supporters were concentrated in the Midwest, allowing him to win an electoral college majority. Brexit supporters may no longer be a majority, as new younger voters are heavily anti-Brexit and might have gained an edge since 2016. But anti-Brexit voters are heavily concentrated in Scotland, the London area and university towns such as Oxford and Cambridge. Brexit backers, however, are spread throughout England and Wales, and, as a result, Brexit is estimated to have won in 406 of the U.K.’s 650 parliamentary constituencies. Anti-Brexit parties may get more votes in the Dec. 12 election, but it will be hard for them to get more seats if Johnson’s plans work.

No one knows what Brexit will ultimately mean for the United Kingdom or its people. But under Johnson’s astute leadership, it looks increasingly likely that it will happen. Dec. 12 will likely be one of the most important days in British history as a result.

Read more:

Sebastian Mallaby: Brexit, lies — and a new birth for British democracy?

Henry Farrell: Britain and Europe have reached a deal on Brexit. Here’s who won and lost.

Henry Olsen: Trump unveiled his reelection strategy at the World Series. Democrats should be nervous.

Megan McArdle: Boris Johnson is presiding over Britain’s stupidest hour

Nick Cohen: Boris Johnson claims he’s going to ‘get Brexit done.’ That’s a lie.