There’s no escaping it. This snap election was called because Britain is broken over Brexit.
If Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservatives achieve a solid majority in Parliament, they will assuredly plow forward with Brexit. Dreams of a second referendum — of remaining in the E.U. — will be dashed. And by January, one of the dominant partners in the long, lucrative, peaceful, postwar order, manifested by Europe’s political and trade bloc, will go off on its own.
A Conservative majority has been widely anticipated, as opinion polls through much of the six-week campaign have showed the party with a lead of 10 points or more. But that advantage may be diminishing.
A last major poll published Tuesday night by YouGov predicted the Conservatives would win with a 28-seat majority, less than half the 68-seat majority that was forecast two weeks ago. The pollster said the prediction was within the margin of error and warned that a hung Parliament — or an even larger Conservative majority — is still a possibility.
If the voters deny Johnson the outright win he has been pleading for, hobbling him with an enfeebled slim-majority government or, worse for him, a hung Parliament — well, then, things could get very testy, with yet more months or years of paralysis over Brexit to follow.
If Johnson’s archrival, the opposition Labour Party leader, the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn, surprises every one of the pollsters and takes enough votes, he could best the Tories and try to cobble together a coalition to run the country and begin his promised “radical transformation” of the British economy under a socialist banner.
Britons cry that they are weary of the current era of noxious, hyperpartisan politics, though in truth, the public has stoked this furnace, with their honest, but harsh, differences of opinion.
This is the third general election in a little more than four years, and, according to the surplus of opinion surveys and interviews, people are as hopelessly divided over leaving the E.U. as they were in June 2016, when they voted 52 percent to 48 percent to go their own way.
The entire country has been transformed into “Remainers” vs. “Leavers.” Family and friends have become combative over issues they never imagined they’d fight over — such as frictionless trade or the diktats of the European Court of Justice.
Traditional courtesies have been flung aside, with members of Parliament hurling charges of treason and surrender at one another in the House of Commons and decrying plots to “undermine democracy.”
Campaigning lawmakers from both parties, but especially women, say they have been terrified of being physically attacked while knocking on constituents’ doors.
The anxious and gloomy atmosphere has been made worse by the fact that, for the first time in years, Brits are going to the polls in December, when the sun sets at 3:50 p.m.
Johnson has been the pied piper for Brexit since the 2016 referendum, though in the election campaign, he hasn’t said much about the reasons for leaving — except to promise that after Brexit, his government will unleash British potential on a global stage.
His dominant message is “Get Brexit Done.” He wore that slogan on his apron as he made sausage rolls in front of the cameras. He drove a bulldozer emblazoned with it though a pile of foam blocks.
“Get Brexit Done” is a simple, aspirational message but ultimately misleading — because even if Johnson and his Conservatives win big, Brexit will not be over.
Untangling 45 years of integration with Europe — not only on trade, finance, migration and manufacturing but also on security, intelligence, aviation, fishing, medicine patents and data sharing — will take another year or more of hard-fought negotiations with Europe and will almost certainly dominate headlines and consume the agenda in Westminster.
If Johnson wins, the Conservatives have promised — in capital letters in the party’s manifesto — that he will never, ever ask for another Brexit delay beyond the December 2020 deadline.
This raises the possibility that if Johnson doesn’t secure a quickie trade agreement, he will again threaten to take Britain out of Europe with “no deal,” returning the country to a retread of debates that dominated former prime minister Theresa May’s time in office — until she was booted out by her own party for not getting Brexit done.
Johnson’s rival Corbyn is proposing a softer Brexit — plus the guarantee of a second referendum within six months, another national vote on whether to stay or go, with the option to call the whole thing off.
Labour has also been hammering away on a theme that the prime minister and his party “just don’t care” about the beloved National Health Service — and are readying to sell it off to the Americans if they win.
While Brits who really want to remain in the E.U. might pivot to support Corbyn’s promised “do-over” referendum, or a smaller anti-Brexit party, many voters say they are burned out on Brexit and just want to see the pain end.
YouGov’s constituency-by-constituency poll predicted Conservatives would win 339 seats, and Labour 231. The Conservative gains were mostly forecast in the “red wall” areas of the north — Brexit-backing, working-class areas that have long been Labour strongholds.
While Brexit has dominated the election, the two main party leaders have also been dogged by questions about character, particularly their trustworthiness.
“As British elections have become more presidential, the question of the leader is now important,” said Tony Travers, a politics professor at the London School of Economics.
Johnson has a reputation as someone with a loose relationship with the truth. He was fired from his first journalism job for making up a quote. He became a Brussels correspondent known for outrageous and factually questionable dispatches. In the Brexit referendum campaign, he promoted a highly inflated number on how much Britain contributes to the E.U.
That reputation may have been reinforced during this election campaign as Johnson evaded questions — on the impact of his Brexit deal on Northern Ireland, on how many hospitals his government would build, on his relationship with American entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri, who accused him of ghosting her like “some fleeting one-night stand.”
On the final day of campaigning, Johnson was reported to have dodged an interview by hiding in a refrigerator.
And then there’s Corbyn, a European-style socialist, who has been mocked for years by Conservative news media as a “red menace.” When Labour released its campaign platform last month, the tabloid Daily Mail labeled it “the Marxist Manifesto.” Corbyn has additionally been criticized for refusing to be pinned down in his position on Brexit and for failing to root out anti-Semitism in his party.
It’s notable that many Labour and Conservative candidates make zero mention of their party leaders on their websites and leaflets, presumably because they think they have a better chance of winning without the association.
Looking back on the campaign, there have been several potentially pivotal moments.
The Conservatives got a boost when Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party decided not to contest seats the Tories won in 2017.
And President Trump arguably did the prime minister a favor when he said the United States wouldn’t want Britain’s health system even if it were handed over “on a silver platter.”
But one of the most important moments of the election may have come just before it was called — when Johnson successfully renegotiated a withdrawal deal with E.U. leaders though he failed to get parliamentary support for his fast-tracked timetable.
Unlike Theresa May, who called an election to strengthen her hand in negotiations with the E.U., Johnson can pitch Brexit as something that is nearly done and just needs an extra push over the finish line.
Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, said Johnson recognized that even if the deal wasn’t perfect, or if he had to make “ridiculous” promises or compromises to get majority support, “once it had majority support, it was something. And something always beats nothing, particularly when people are feeling frustrated and impatient.”
“That,” Ford said, “may well be the turning point that has enabled this to be framed so effectively as the Brexit election.”