The constituency was once held by a former Labour prime minister, the centrist and close Bill Clinton ally, Tony Blair. It swung behind the Conservatives big time in Thursday’s general election — whose outcome handed Johnson a clear path to steer Britain out of the European Union.
Yet even as Johnson leaned forward with promises of good times to come, many are wondering which of the United Kingdom’s four parts — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — Johnson was appealing to.
Scotland on Thursday overwhelmingly voted for a nationalist party that wants its own breakaway plan: secede from the United Kingdom and stay in the European Union.
In Northern Ireland, for the first time in its history, the region elected more nationalist lawmakers, who support unification with the Republic of Ireland, than unionists, who emphatically demand to remain a part of Britain.
Ever since England and Wales voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, while Scotland and Northern Ireland did the exact opposite, the sides have worried or wondered when the union might crack up over Brexit.
The next few years may tell us.
In England, Johnson’s Conservatives won new seats across the opposition Labour Party’s former working-class heartlands, giving his party its largest parliamentary majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987.
Johnson acknowledged that the former Labour supporters who backed him were tentative, still skeptical crossovers. Yes, they swiped Tory-curious — but they were not true believers ready to back the traditional Conservative doctrine of lower taxes, less government, fewer services, and more free-market capitalism.
Instead, these former Labour-leaners were driven to vote for Johnson over their frustration that the Brexit they had voted for in June 2016 was not delivered.
“I can imagine people’s pencils hovering over the ballot paper and wavering, before coming down for us and the Conservatives,” Johnson said in Sedgefield.
“And I know that people may have been breaking the voting habits of generations to vote for us, and I want the people of the northeast to know that we in the Conservative Party, and I, will repay your trust,” the prime minister said.
In Scotland, the task of healing is arguably greater. The first time Johnson was there as prime minister in July, he was booed.
On Friday, Johnson spoke to Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, and rejected her calls for a second referendum on Scottish independence, which she says she now has a mandate for, following her own party’s triumph this past week. (In 2014, Scottish voters solidly turned down an independence question.)
The Scottish National Party, which wants Scotland to break free, nearly swept the board in Scotland, winning more than 80 percent of the seats, higher than even optimistic predictions.
But the Scottish government can’t unilaterally call an independence referendum — they need the support of Parliament. And Westminster, now controlled by Johnson’s Conservatives, does not appear in the mood for another divisive referendum.
Next week, Sturgeon said, she will publish her case to transfer powers from Westminster, so that Scotland can hold a referendum. Johnson has made it clear he will reject the request, setting up a battle to come. Given the Conservative landslide, the battle could rage for many years to come.
“It would take massive and sustained protests — think Hong Kong — to be able to get Westminster government to change its position on this,” said Thomas Lundberg, a lecturer in politics at the University of Glasgow.
Johnson’s cunning, clever campaign that successfully united the pro-Brexit vote in Wales and England — and created an existential crisis for the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats — swept him into office with a mandate to “get Brexit done.”
For the past three years, British politics has been dominated by Brexit, which Britons voted in favor of 52 percent to 48 percent in June 2016.
Johnson is keen to push the Brexit process to the next phase. Starting Monday, Johnson is expected to announce his new leadership team, and then Queen Elizabeth II will formally open Parliament on Thursday.
Johnson wants to hold a vote on his Brexit withdrawal agreement before Christmas. If it passes and then is ratified by the European Parliament, Britain will leave the European Union in January, entering a year-long transition period.
When he was asked whether the dreams of those who want to remain in the European Union were over, Michael Heseltine, a former Conservative deputy prime minister and a prominent pro-European, said that the debate was over.
“We have lost. Let’s not muck about with the language,” he told the BBC on Saturday. “Brexit is going to happen and we have to live with it.”
Heseltine said that it could be 20 years or more before the issue of rejoining the European Union is raised again, but he added: “You can’t escape the devastating results on Scotland and Northern Ireland, so the agenda is not going away.”
The divisions that existed last week have not disappeared overnight. Hundreds of protesters descended on the prime minister’s official residence at 10 Downing Street on Friday night, some waving E.U. flags and others carrying placards that read “Defy Tory Rule” and “No to Racism.”
Johnson’s Conservative Party won 44 percent of the vote share. In Britain’s first-past-the-post system, that is enough for a thumping victory. But an autopsy of the results also suggests challenges that lie ahead.
“Boris has won his gamble in England definitely and also in Wales, but the price is that you exacerbate divisions and you create a state crisis. The whole future, the territorial integrity of the state, is clearly in question in Scotland in Northern Ireland,” said Richard Wyn Jones, a politics expert at Cardiff University.
Johnson is fond of calling the four territories of the union the “awesome foursome.” But unionists in Northern Ireland say that Johnson’s “oven ready” Brexit deal will leave Northern Ireland in the E.U.’s economic space, which they say changes the terms of the union for Northern Ireland.
In Scotland, meanwhile, Johnson’s elite, old Etonian schoolboy persona goes down poorly. Sturgeon’s SNP has called him a “recruiting tool” for their cause. Polls in Scotland show that an uptick in support for independence over the past year have come largely from those wanting to remain in the European Union.
Sturgeon on Friday acknowledged that the election results do not mean that all those who voted for the party “necessarily support independence, but there has been a strong endorsement in this election over Scotland having a choice over our future.”