For months, Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted that the U.K. would exit the European Union on October 31, “no ifs, no buts.” It’s now November, and Britain remains an EU member. Just last month, an Act of Parliament forced Johnson to request an extension to the Brexit timetable from Brussels—something that he previously said he’d “rather be dead in a ditch” than do. With his grudging request granted and a new deadline of January 31 set, Johnson now faces a general election on December 12.
A politician who just broke a promise that happens to be the government’s top policy priority isn’t usually champing at the bit to face voters. Yet, a vote is exactly what Johnson has been pleading for since it became clear that the U.K. wouldn’t exit on time. It’s not hard to see why. Without a Conservative majority in the House of Commons and unable to win approval from MPs for a renegotiated Brexit deal, Johnson thinks that, unlike Parliament, the people—or enough of them to grant him a majority—are on his side.
Informing the Conservative strategy is a sense—doubtless confirmed by focus groups and internal polling—that pro-Brexit Brits overwhelmingly support Johnson’s deal, while enough Conservative Remainers will stick with the party now that it’s pursuing an orderly end to this chapter of the Brexit saga rather than a divisive no-deal scenario. Combine that with a historically unpopular leader of the opposition in Jeremy Corbyn—whose flip-flopping on Brexit means his party’s vote is likely to be squeezed by the pro-Remain, center-left Liberal Democrats—and it’s not hard to see why most polls report a double-digit lead for the Conservatives over Labour. In short, the case for Tory bullishness is compelling.
And yet, only Conservatives with short memories are unhesitating in their confidence. The backdrops to this vote and the disastrous 2017 election—in which Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May lost her majority, and from which so many of her party’s subsequent problems have flowed—are strikingly similar. Both campaigns began with a Conservative prime minister with a healthy lead in the polls asking for a stronger mandate to deliver Brexit. In 2017, the party’s plans went awry. Domestic issues, not Brexit, dominated the campaign. May, burdened with unpopular policies and a legacy of fiscal restraint that she neither broke with definitively nor properly defended, delivered a lackluster performance on the campaign trail. Corbyn, by contrast, made lavish spending promises and toured the country with a brio that boosted his personal ratings and helped save his party from electoral annihilation.
There’s good reason to believe 2019 will be different. As a result of Brexit, Johnson may be a damaged brand in the eyes of millions of Brits, but unlike May, he boats an impressive track record of campaign success, winning the London mayoralty in 2008 and 2012 and delivering the Brexit result in 2016. More important, the 2019 Jeremy Corbyn is very different from the 2017 version—the more the British public sees of Labour’s far-left leader, the less they like him. Thanks to Brexit frustrations and his evident complacency about anti-Semitism in his party, Corbyn’s favorability ratings are lower than those recorded by any opposition leader for 45 years.
That said, this campaign is unlikely to yield a national conversation about who is best suited to being prime minister. Brexit has complicated the picture of a typical swing voter; rather than the two major parties fighting tooth-and-claw for the center ground, they will hope to squeeze out smaller parties who have made Brexit their single issue. Here is where things become especially hard to predict. The insurgents—Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party on the Leave side and the Liberal Democrats in the Remain camp—fight different opponents in different parts of the country. A strong Brexit Party performance would cost the Conservatives votes, but the party also offers a home for pro-Brexit Labour supporters who cannot bring themselves to vote Conservative—a boost to Tory efforts to capture traditionally Labour seats. In some constituencies, a strong Liberal Democrat performance could split the Remain vote and hand the seat to the Tories. Elsewhere, it might be Conservative Remainers who opt for the Lib Dems, securing seats for Labour. The Scottish Nationalist Party, which holds 35 of the 59 seats north of the border, complicates the picture even further.
An eventful first week of campaigning has served as a reminder that the day-to-day turbulence of an election season can be as important as the big picture. Conservative cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg found himself in the headlines after ill-advised comments about the 2017 Grenfell fire that killed 72 people in London. Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, a Corbyn critic, unexpectedly announced that he would not be running for reelection. Another Labour politician made news by saying that she would cheer the death of former prime minister Tony Blair, as people once cheered Hitler’s demise. Predicting what will dominate the conversation in a political campaign is often as hard as predicting the result.
In other words, a straightforward story about a tribal Brexit election makes sense when looking at the whole country, but when it comes to mapping that onto Britain’s 650 constituencies, things get murkier. And however handsome Johnson’s lead in the polls, translating that into a majority in the House of Commons involves victories in parts of the country that until recently turned blue only in Tories’ wildest dreams.
What can be said with more certainty, however, is that the stakes in this race could hardly be higher. A Conservative majority means that Britain leaves the EU. A Labour-led government likely means a second referendum and the possibility that Brexit never happens. Moving away from the issue that has preoccupied Westminster for the last three years, Britain must choose between a Conservative party setting out a centrist, one-nation position and a Labour Party no longer shy about its plans to deliver a “revolution.” It might be hyperbolic to describe the next five weeks as a contest between a market economy and Brexit on the one hand, and socialism and Remain on the other—but only slightly.
Photos by Christopher Furlong (left) and Daniel Leal-Olivas - WPA Pool (right), Getty Images