What the UK’s General Election Means for Brexit and Much Else

Two days before Halloween - the day when the UK was supposed to leave the European Union, but didn’t - Parliament approved the Prime Minister’s request for a general election. This election is the latest attempt to end the stalemate that has persisted ever since June 2016, when the Europe referendum produced a narrow victory for Brexit against the sentiment of Parliament that was, and is, mostly for Remain. The UK goes to vote on 12 December.

There are several peculiarities about this election. It is the first to be held in December since 1923. When they have had a choice, UK governments prefer to avoid winter elections lest bad weather or the flu prevent people from going to vote. These are largely spurious objections. Polling stations in the UK tend to be quite near people’s homes; it is not like in the United States where many people have to drive to the polls. What is more, those who would find it difficult to vote in person for whatever reaason can register for a postal vote.

Then there is the distraction element. With Christmas (25 December) less than two weeks away, voters could be too preoccupied by other things, such as shopping, planning and attending children’s nativity plays, either to pay attention to the campaign or to vote. So far, there is reported to have been a surge of people, especially young people, registering to vote, which suggests a reasonable level of interest. But what will happen on the day?

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Ulrike Reisner
At first glance, the stalemate surrounding Brexit is an expression of a specific domestic political crisis. At second glance, one gets the impression that the EU cannot deal with the withdrawal of Member States. But isn’t this crisis a symptom that our political systems are eroding? Democratic institutions lack the means and possibilities to solve today’s complex problems.
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A third and totally unexpected curiosity was the US President’s participation in a radio phone-in programme, where he expressed his support for Johnson. It has been debated ever since whether this is a plus for Johnson with the voters, or a minus.

The biggest uncertainty of all, though, is whether this election will actually be able to break the deadlock in British politics over Brexit. It is probably fair to say that this is not what Boris Johnson hoped for when he became Prime Minister in July. Any election, after all, is a risk. He would surely have preferred to call an election after he had “got Brexit done”. But it was not to be. Even though he managed, against all predictions, to negotiate an amended “deal” with Brussels and even though, unlike Theresa May, he secured MPs’ approval in principle, MPs also set conditions which could have left his agreement in shreds.

So the political stalemate continued - and it continued for a very simple reason.

Referendums do not fit well with the UK’s Parliamentary system, at least not when the result goes against government policy and the will of the majority in Parliament. The election called by Theresa May in 2017 might have solved that, but it actually made things worse. There was still a big majority of MPs in the new Parliament who opposed Brexit, believing that it was not in the UK’s national interest. Plus, May lost her overall majority, which made it harder for her government to pass any legislation at all.

As for why the parliamentary election results were so different from the referendum result, that is because MPs are elected, one for each constituency, in a “first past the post system”, while a referendum reflects the popular vote nationally. It is unlikely that the gap between Parliament and “people” would be so great in a country where MPs were elected according to a more proportional system. But that is not how elections work in the UK.

When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister after Theresa May resigned, he faced precisely the same options as she did. One was to accept that there was no Parliamentary majority for a Brexit “deal” and simply allow the deadline to pass. In that case, the UK would leave the EU with “no deal”, with most trade and other arrangements being summarily severed, at potentially huge cost to the economy. Another was to propose a second EU referendum in the hope of either confirming or overturning the first.

But there was no Parliamentary majority for either of these options. MPs remains so fiercely opposed to a “no deal” Brexit, that they passed legislation to force Johnson to request an extension from Brussels rather than let the deadline pass. As for another referendum, there has never been a parliamentary majority for this: it was seen by Brexit supporters as a ruse to overturn the first referendum and by many others as constitutionally questionable. It did not help that the campaign for a second referendum has been dogged by internal divisions.

Which left another election as Boris Johnson’s only realistic alternative. Whether it will finally break the Brexit logjam, however, is another matter. The opinion polls currently have Boris Johnson and the Conservatives around 15 points ahead of Labour, with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats third. This could give the Conservatives a big overall majority in Parliament, which could allow them to pass Boris Johnson’s Brexit agreement with no further delays. The UK would then move smoothly towards an amicable departure from the EU on or before the end of January, Johnson’s job as Prime Minister would be secure, and he would be able to transfer at least some of his attention to a domestic agenda that is more socially liberal than might be associated with a Brexiteer.

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On October 31, 2019, the Valdai Discussion Club hosted an expert discussion, devoted to the prospects for Britain's exit from the EU. It was the date that Boris Johnson named as a deadline when he took the prime minister's chair in June 2019. But now, at the insistence of the British parliament, he has been forced to agree to ask the European Commission to grant another delay - now the UK has until the end of January. Therefore, problems with Brexit continue with no light at the end of the tunnel.
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This, for him, would be the ideal scenario, but it is far from certain. The electorate is said to be the most unpredictable it has ever been. The “first past the post” system also means that a big lead in the national opinion polls for one party or another does not translate into the same lead in every constituency. Surprising, though it might seem, it could turn out that Brexit is not the main issue that determines how people vote.

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is a forceful campaigner, as he showed at the 2017 election, and his left-wing socialist message resonates especially young people who feel they have been victims of the 2008 financial crisis. Two years ago, he was able to turn some of the focus of the election on to economic and social issues, and away from Brexit, and he might be able to do the same again.

The Liberal Democrats, as the only party unambiguously in favour of remaining in the EU, could become the main party for Remain voters, and pick up more votes - perhaps a lot more votes - than before. There is also the - so far - small Brexit party (a splinter from UK Independence Party), under the former Ukip leader, Nigel Farage.

So, despite the Conservatives’ early lead, several outcomes are possible. Johnson could win a decisive majority; after all, he too is an accomplished campaigner, as he showed by winning two terms as London mayor. But it could also be that the Conservatives could lose votes to the Brexit Party, or that a swing towards Labour and Corbyn and/or towards the Liberal Democrats from a Remain vote, leaves him with either a small or no majority - placing him essentially back in the position he is now.

Or - and this cannot be ruled out either - it coud be that Labour and the Liberal Democrats between them win enough seats to make a majority in Parliament, and form the next government. In that case, Boris Johnson will have lost his gamble and he and the Conservatives will be forced into opposition. The new government then either concludes a “soft” Brexit with Brussels, or decides to hold a new referendum.

I do not dare forecast what will happen. But I will offer a few pointers. This will be one of the most fascinating, and potentially dramatic, elections the UK has experienced for a very long time. The sudden intervention from Donald Trump was only the start. It pits two seasoned campaigners - Corbyn and Johnson - against each other, leading parties that are now more to the left (Labour) and to the right (Conservative), than they were before. If the election is fought primarily on Brexit, then the appeal of the Liberal Democrats, as the only Remain party, should not be underestimated either.

More certain, perhaps, is that between now and the end of the year, the UK will be even more preoccupied with its own European dilemma and even less of a foreign policy presence in the wider world, as it tries to determine where its future lies. That future may become clearer on 12 December. Then again, it might not.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.