United Kingdom: Election 2019
By: Eli Wizevich
“Do or die, come what may,” promised Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party. The United Kingdom would finally leave the European Union (see: “Brexit.”) as mandated by a 2016 referendum on October the 31st. But as Halloween glides by, the UK is still part of the EU—angering half of the nation, pleasing the other. On December 12th, the general election, voters will have a chance to decide not only which version of Brexit they back, but also which vision for the nation they endorse. This article examines why the election is here, which parties are running on what, and what the election will mean for the future. Whatever the result, there is no doubt that this election will be one of the most important in modern history.
Deal or No Deal?
Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, flailed for three years to secure a deal that would cushion any “crash” out of the EU, but frequent trips to Brussels (the helm of the EU) to negotiate with European leaders came to no avail, and the deadline was pushed further and further down the road. After May’s resignation, the newly elected Boris Johnson faced Brexit head-on. Leveraging “no-deal” against his continental peers, Johnson’s new deal is nonetheless still quite similar to that of May’s but more likely to pass Parliament.
The main difference between the deals is the question of the Irish backstop. In its essence, the Republic of Ireland (an EU member state) and Northern Ireland (part of the UK) are trying to avoid a “hard border” when the UK leaves the EU. “Physical infrastructure” along the border would cripple both Irelands economically and is resoundingly unpopular. May proposed a “backstop” wherein the UK would conform to a customs union with the EU; Johnson’s deal, however, means leaving the EU customs union—in hopes of trading freely with the rest of the world—and eliminating the backstop, replacing it with customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. In other words, the border will be the Irish Sea, not the land between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
January the 31st is the new date by which Johnson and the Conservatives have to pass the deal and leave the EU. Of course, that depends on what happens December 12th—the general election—and if they return to Westminster with a majority.
“Praise be to Nero's Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn. Everybody's shouting, ‘Which side are you on?!’”
For any view on the Brexit spectrum, there is a party to match come December. The Liberal Democrats’ propose remain; Labour endorses a second referendum; the Tories want to exit with a deal; and the Brexit Party are ready to leave without a deal on a moment’s notice. More than any other time in history, the central campaigns of this election will be on one main issue: Brexit.
Mr. Johnson and his Conservative Party lead in the polls by a larger margin than Ms. May in 2017, partly because of the energy Mr. Johnson brings. A passionate orator and gifted politician, Mr. Johnson capitalizes on the weariness of the populace whereas Ms. May added to it. The movement to withdrawal has dominated British politics for nearly five years, and, in turn, voters want to realign focus to other equally pressing issues. The Tories promise to “get Brexit done” and “unleash Britain’s potential.”
Part of Mr. Johnson’s plan to “unleash Britain’s potential” is to pump funds and resources into existing infrastructure: 20,000 more police on the streets, 14 billion Pounds to secondary and technical schools. Mr. Johnson promises to combine free markets with robust public services; case in point is his plan for the National Health Service (NHS): increased spending injections coupled with openness to foreign insurance and medicine (much to the ire of Labour who deride such a program as opening British health to American greed).
Behind the Conservatives in the polls are indeed the Labour party and their socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn. As a lifelong Eurosceptic, Corbyn has wavered on Brexit: his personal views are juxtaposed with the general sentiments of the left. Labour’s current position is for a second referendum, allowing voters to make another choice on leaving after seeing what a kerfuffle Brexit really is. Well intentioned, more referenda will nonetheless prolong the years of turmoil on Brexit and sideline the sweeping institutional reforms Labour wants. Simply, a second vote would further muddy the waters.
When it comes to policy, Mr. Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell are set to undertake the most radical set of social and economic reforms since Margaret Thatcher. Abolishing private schools, skyrocketing tax rates, and hiking government spending— $513 billion to fight climate change and aid with social transformation, say—are only the beginning of “the best tradition of British socialism,” according to Mr. Donnell.
These plans, of course, would only come to fruition if Labour can form a government—and that is most likely should Mr. Corbyn be propped up by a coalition. The center-left Liberal Democrats, led by Jo Swinson, brand themselves as the only true “remain” party in the general election. Although Ms. Swinson promises to end the Labour/Tory duopoly, her only chance of joining a government would be on the back of Mr. Corbyn. Realistically, the Liberal Democrats will siphon from traditional Labour voters disenchanted with Mr. Corbyn’s radicalism and Labour’s flimsy position on Brexit. If Ms. Swinson refuses to into government with Labour—and minor parties like the Scottish National Party—the Tories will undoubtedly profit.
In stark opposition to the Liberal Democrats, and filling out the Brexit spectrum, the Brexit Party, as the name suggests, wants a clean break from the EU—no deal, no customs union. Pure, simple Brexit. Nigel Farage, the chief instigator of the Brexit referendum and leader of the Brexit Party, threatens to contest every seat, seeing Mr. Johnson’s deal as “virtually worse than being in the EU.” Whilst Mr. Farage may pressure Mr. Johnson from the right, the Brexit Party is unlikely to repeat its success in the Spring Euopean Parliament elections. Mr. Johnson was right to reject a proposed coalition from President Donald Trump, encouraging the Tories and the Brexit Party to work together: the Brexit Party is but a fleeting passion in the vast timeline of politics; an alliance would damage the reputation of the Conservatives.
When the votes have all been cast, Labour will have been significantly hurt. Corbyn is unpopular in his own party and turns off moderates by subscribing to radical ideas on nationalisation. As Labour leader, he will be forced to step down after losing yet another general election, but his party will remain the second largest in Westminster and head the opposition. The Liberal Democrats will gain a sizable number of MPs, and they will force the Labour party to adopt a clearer stance on Brexit and more moderate progressive policies. The Brexit Party will win a few seats but not anything as groundbreaking as their victory in the European Parliament elections this past spring.
Boris Johnson and the Tories will profit immensely off of the heavy infighting on the left. The Brexit Party may weaken support for the Tories amongst hardline leavers, but their staunch views isolate a large number of center-right voters.
After December’s elections, it will again be time for Parliament to sit, again in a mad rush before the January 31st deadline, to attempt to pass Brexit legislation. Even if Mr. Johnson secures a majority, his deal will undoubtedly face substantive amendments in the Commons and debate across the nation, slowing the process to what it is now.
Contrary to popular thought, the election will not make the choices surrounding Brexit clearer. In the end, Britain will be more divided, and the Prime Minister will have to forge national consensus to move Britain beyond Brexit and into a brighter future.