Instead, the atmosphere is one of fear and loathing. A quarter of the country actually said they would use the word “fear” to describe their feelings about the vote. Fifteen percent said they felt anger, while 14 percent said they were simply confused. And whether through aloofness or despondence, 27 percent said none of the words offered matched their feelings.
This grim appraisal of Britain’s election, due to be held Dec. 12, reflects the fact that for so many, the election reflects not progress but gridlock.
This is the second early election that has been called in just over two years and much of the political debate still revolves around Britain’s plan to leave the European Union, which was voted on in June 2016 but lingers, forever debated and delayed. All this, despite the fact that an average of opinion polls from a variety of sources now consistently suggest that a majority of Brits no longer want to leave the E.U.
The impact of Brexit on the election was made clear on Monday when Nigel Farage, activist and leader of the upstart Brexit Party, announced that he would not field candidates in seats held by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government. The move, which Farage suggested was a unilateral alliance to stop a second Brexit referendum, appeared likely to help Johnson win a majority in Parliament.
Opponents of the government now argue they need to band together themselves. Even if these pro-Remain groups can’t formally come together, the battle lines have been drawn. It’s a “brutal binary choice between the newly merged Tory-Brexit friends-of-Trump party and a flaky progressive remain alliance,” the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee writes.
Britain has been living with Brexit uncertainty for over three years now. The last few weeks have hardly made things clearer. Johnson called this election because, like his predecessor, Theresa May, he proved unable to get his withdrawal agreement through Parliament before an E.U.-set deadline. After an extension to January, Johnson decided to throw the ball to voters, hoping to regain a functioning majority.
For a moment, it looked like Farage could spoil that plan. His Brexit Party had far outperformed the Conservatives in a European Parliament election this summer and though both he and Johnson are pro-Brexit, the style of Brexit they seek is different: Farage told President Trump that his party planned to run against the Conservatives in the December vote, unless Johnson abandoned his E.U. plan for a harder, riskier Brexit.
Nick Timothy, a former adviser to May during her time leading Britain, wrote in the Telegraph on Sunday that such a move could split the pro-Brexit vote. Timothy claimed that “friends of Nigel Farage” had been comparing him to Frodo Baggins from “The Lord of the Rings,” driven mad by his mythical quest for Brexit. Others disagreed.
Farage backed down the following day. Among his rivals, there are suspicions about why. The Brexit Party leader told the Daily Mirror that he had been offered a peerage in Britain’s House of Lords last week, but turned it down. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the leftist Labour Party opposition, wrote on Twitter that there had been a Trump-approved pact between Farage and Johnson.
If there is a pact, it may not be as much of a game-changer as many think. John Curtice, a politics professor at the University of Strathclyde, told The Washington Post’s William Booth and Karla Adam that despite the drama of his announcement, Farage is not standing down in the seats that the Conservatives are hoping to win from Labour.
“This is good news for Boris, but it’s not as good as it looks,” Curtice said, suggesting that another hung Parliament could still be on the cards.
Johnson is considerably ahead in the polls and in a normal British election we’d expect him to win. But this is not a normal election, and Corbyn has already proven himself adept at campaigning, managing to swing back from 20-points behind in June 2017 to earn Labour’s largest share of the popular vote since 1945.
In the aftermath of that vote, Corbyn had flirted with the idea that he, rather than May’s Conservatives, could form a minority government. With the political scene of 2019 more fractured, that may be an even more appealing idea. An anti-Brexit alliance is possible, albeit unwieldy, with Corbyn’s increasingly left-wing Labour, the centrist Liberal Democrats, the environmentalist Greens and nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland.
But Corbyn himself as prime minister is still a hard thing to imagine for much of the country. The Economist recently argued that a “Corbyn-led government would quickly lead to the biggest change in Britain’s defense posture since the Second World War.” Like Trump, he is anti-NATO and skeptical of criticism of Russia, though unlike Trump, he is also anti-Trump.
Nick Boles, a former Conservative member of Parliament who quit over their Brexit stance, wrote in the Evening Standard that the election will eventually become known as the “Appalling Choice of 2019,” with voters forced to decide between “a compulsive liar who has betrayed every single person he has ever had any dealings with” and a man who cares “only for classes and factions, and the struggle between abstract political forces.”
Compounding the pessimism are worrying signs about the British economy. New economic data showed the country narrowly dodging a recession, but the economy is the weakest it has been in a decade and there’s little room for maneuver. No matter who wins the election, they may have a lot more bad news than just Brexit to deal with.