UK Heads Toward Elections to Break Brexit Impasse

An anti-brexit demonstrator holds a banner outside Parliament in London on Monday. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

(CN) – The agonizing political deadlock over Brexit may be nearing an end after the House of Commons on Tuesday called a snap election in December.

The House of Commons voted Tuesday evening to allow a snap election on Dec. 12, the first December election in the United Kingdom in almost a century.

It will be a pivotal moment in the three-and-a-half-year Brexit debate that’s consumed the U.K. since 52% of Brits voted to leave the European Union in a 2016 referendum.

After months of bitter deadlock over Brexit, an election is the most obvious path forward for Parliament. But an election carries risk for the two major parties and even after the results are in, Parliament may not look much different from it does now: At a stalemate over Brexit.

Agreement to go to the polls came about after the main opposition party, Labour, said Tuesday it was ready to hold elections because the EU agreed on Monday to delay Brexit and set a Jan. 31 deadline for the U.K.’s exit from the bloc.

With the threat of the U.K. crashing out of the EU eliminated, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn agreed to hold an election.

Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been calling for an election ever since his Brexit strategy – which included the threat of leaving the EU bloc on adversarial terms – was foiled by opposition parties in early September.

Without a majority in Parliament, Johnson has been repeatedly defeated in the House of Commons and his three previous attempts at holding elections have also been shot down, the latest coming on Monday.

Until now, opposition parties have refused to call elections out of concern that doing so would allow Johnson to engineer leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement.

For weeks, Johnson and his political rivals have been preparing for an election and begun to craft their strategies for winning over voters.

Johnson has touted promises to spend more on social programs and hiring thousands of new police officers to tackle crime. His critics have called his spending bonanza brazen electioneering.

Labour, meanwhile, has put forward a range of left-wing proposals ranging from bringing private schools under state control and reducing the work week.

“We will now launch the most ambitious and radical campaign for real change our country has ever seen,” Corbyn said in a statement. He said Labour would launch “the biggest campaign this party has ever mounted – totally united, totally determined.”

But an election will really be about Brexit.

When it comes to Brexit, the two major parties – the Tories and Labour – are both struggling to muster unity within their ranks.

For the Tories, there is a fight between pro-EU and anti-EU factions. Johnson represents the anti-EU wing and he has sought to purge his party of EU sympathizers.

On Brexit, Johnson and his allies are likely to campaign on forcing the U.K. to leave the EU even if that means splitting Northern Ireland economically off from the rest of the U.K. and potentially leaving the EU without a withdrawal deal.

The Tories also face the possibility that Nigel Farage’s hard-right Brexit Party will compete in the election. Farage and his aggressive pro-Brexit stance are seen as largely responsible for pushing the Tories farther to the right and even forcing former Prime Minister David Cameron to call the 2016 referendum on Brexit.

Labour, meanwhile, is facing its own struggles. A majority in the party favors close alignment with the EU, but there are deep divisions about how close the U.K. should be. One faction would like the U.K. to remain an EU member, but others are in favor of breaking away from EU institutions.

The staunchly pro-EU Liberal Democrats also pose a threat of taking votes away from Labour. In European elections in May, the Liberal Democrats performed very well on a platform calling for Brexit to be revoked. Many Labour supporters may be tempted to vote for the Liberal Democrats because of the appeal of their unequivocal desire to cancel Brexit and see the U.K. remain in the EU.

Besides the complexities the major parties face over Brexit, both Corbyn and Johnson summon passionate antipathy.

Corbyn has a history of expressing far-left ideas and many in the U.K., including much of the British press, scorn his socialist leanings. Corbyn is also cast as a dull and indecisive leader whose charm has begun to wear off since he successfully led Labour in 2017 snap elections.

Johnson has a long track record of political chicanery and an extravagant, and questionable, personal life. Although he is very popular among Tories, he is reviled by his opponents and castigated by his opponents as a divisive and untrustworthy prime minister.

If an election is held, pundits said it will be a defining moment.

“Britain looks set for the most consequential election in its entire postwar history,” said Matthew Goodwin, a political scientist and best-selling author, on Twitter. “Brexit, a second referendum [on Brexit], Johnson’s embryonic premiership and Corbyn’s Labour hang in the balance.”

John Curtice, a leading election expert, told LBC radio on Tuesday that the election may turn against the Tories and Labour.

“I think the safest prediction is that we will have a record number of non-Conservative and non-Labour MPs in this Parliament,” Curtice said.

He said an outcome where neither the Tories nor Labour are able to obtain a majority would favor Labour because it could form a coalition with other parties while the same cannot be said for the Tories.

“It’s an election that Boris Johnson has to win,” he said. “If he does not get a majority or something very close to it, he will not be able to stay in government because the Conservatives do not have any friends elsewhere.”

He added: “Bear in mind, this is not an election that Labour have to win to stop Brexit, but it is an election that they and the other opposition parties simply need to deny the Conservatives a majority.”

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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