Fri | Aug 7, 2020

Leaders scramble for final votes as ugly election ends

Published:Thursday | December 12, 2019 | 12:23 AM
Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.
Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.


Britain’s election has been like the country’s late-autumn weather: chilly and dull, with blustery outbursts.

On the last day of the campaign, political leaders dashed around the UK on Wednesday trying to win over millions of undecided voters who will likely determine the outcome.

Opinion polls suggest Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have a lead over the main opposition Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, ahead of Thursday’s election. But all the parties are nervous about the verdict of a volatile electorate fed up after years of Brexit wrangling.

Truck driver Clive Jordan expressed a weariness that could be heard up and down the country during the five-week campaign.

“Basically, I just want it over and done with now,” he said. “Nobody’s doing what they said. Everybody’s lying.”

Britain’s first December vote since 1923 has been dubbed the ‘Brexit Election’. It is being held more than two years early in hopes of breaking Britain’s political deadlock over the country’s stalled departure from the European Union (EU).

Johnson has focused relentlessly on Brexit throughout the campaign, endlessly repeating his slogan, ‘Get Brexit done.’ He says that if he wins a majority of the 650 House of Commons seats on Thursday, he will get Parliament to ratify his “oven-ready” divorce deal with the EU and take Britain out of the bloc, as scheduled, on January 31.

“If we can get a working majority, we have a deal, it’s ready to go,” Johnson said Wednesday as he watched pies being baked at a catering firm in central England. “We put it in, slam it in the oven, take it out and there it is – get Brexit done.”

As a slogan, Get Brexit done is both misleading and effective. If Britain leaves the EU on January 31 it will only kick-start months or years of negotiations on future trade relations with the bloc, involving tough trade-offs between independence and access.

Labour — which is largely but ambiguously pro-EU — faces competition for anti-Brexit voters from the centrist Liberal Democrats, Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties and the Greens.

“The only reason the Conservatives are so far ahead in the polls now is that the ‘remain’ vote is divided,” said Rosie Campbell, professor of politics at King’s College London. “For ‘remain’ voters it has been a real failure of leadership.”

If the Tories fail to win a majority, it will be a sign that voters think other issues are just as important as Brexit. Labour has focused on domestic issues, especially the wear and tear to the country’s state-funded health service after nine years of Conservative government austerity. Labour also promises to boost public spending, nationalise Britain’s railways and utilities, and provide everyone in the country with free Internet access — all paid for by raising taxes on high earners.

“My message to all those voters who are still undecided is that you can vote for hope in this election,” Corbyn said Wednesday at his final campaign rally.

On Brexit, Labour says it will negotiate a new divorce deal with the EU, then offer voters the choice in a new referendum between leaving on those terms and remaining in the bloc.

For many voters, Thursday’s election offers 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 with past broken promises, untruths 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.”

Corbyn has been accused of allowing anti-Semitism to spread within the party. The 70-year-old left-winger is portrayed by opponents as an ageing Marxist with unsavoury past associations with Hamas and the IRA.