Why a ‘Brexit Election’ Will Make Things Worse

A national vote in the run-up to Britain’s deadline to withdraw from the European Union will be dangerous.

Boris Johnson stands at a lectern on the street outside his 10 Downing Street office.
Alberto Pezzali / AP

Britain has many specialties: queues, talking about the weather, the perfect cup of tea. It might be about to add another—public votes that don’t solve any of the country’s problems.

In five years, Britain has held four of these: general elections in 2015 and 2017, the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, and the European Union referendum two years later. Now, as Parliament returns from its summer break, another election seems imminent. Outside Downing Street yesterday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stressed that he did not “want” a general election. The implication, however, was that one might be needed to resolve the parliamentary deadlock. Less than two months remain before Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on October 31, and lawmakers have repeatedly failed to endorse a withdrawal deal. An election would mean that either Johnson gains a mandate for his preferred exit, or his government is kicked out of office and someone else takes over the negotiations.

Put aside for the moment the possibility that an election could deliver a hung Parliament. (That is a realistic option: The prime minister leads in the polls, but research shows that voters feel more attached to how they voted in the 2016 Brexit referendum than to traditional party divides, making British politics incredibly volatile and unpredictable.)

Even if the election did deliver a majority, there is another, bigger problem. Any vote held before October 31 is likely to be fought on a narrow, procedural question: Should Britain leave the EU on that date, whether it has a withdrawal deal or not? British election campaigns are fought in a matter of weeks, and there is simply not enough time, or political oxygen, to scrutinize the main parties’ non-Brexit-related plans for the country. Yet the result could see the winner installed in Downing Street for a full five-year term.

Every election is a crossroads, a chance for the country to decide its future. Yet for the past three years, hardly any attention has been paid to the very different visions the Conservatives and Labour, the main opposition, have for Britain. The parties are much further apart than they were even in the aftermath of the financial crisis, when both agreed that state spending needed to be curbed and welfare benefits should be reduced. Since then, Labour has elected a strongly left-wing leader, with a foreign policy sharply distinct from that of his predecessors: Much less friendly to the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, and more sympathetic to Iran, Russia, and Venezuela.

As for the Conservatives, their ideological gravity is now—where, exactly? For a small but driven section of the party, Brexit is an opportunity to remake the British economy. The usual shorthand is the Singapore model: low corporation taxes, disempowered trade unions, low regulation, reduced welfare benefits, and a large, but temporary, migrant workforce.

Johnson’s key lieutenant, Dominic Cummings, has a different set of priorities. He favors tax cuts concentrated on the lower-paid; greater investment in public services; a more punitive attitude toward crime, with longer prison sentences; and a move to a points-based immigration system. These are popular pledges, but tax cuts and higher state spending would be extremely expensive.

To which faction does the prime minister belong? It is hard to tell. His cabinet is a hodgepodge of libertarian free-marketeers and more community-minded advocates of blue-collar conservativism. Johnson was a pro-immigration social liberal when mayor of London, but was the face of what critics saw as a nativist campaign for Brexit. “With Boris, what people would call pragmatism in Theresa May or David Cameron is a bit more opportunism,” says Ryan Shorthouse of the center-right think tank Bright Blue, referring to Johnson’s two immediate predecessors. His government offers little ideological consistency, combining those who Shorthouse says have a “let the free market rip” attitude with more centrist politicians. For every cabinet member who wants to declare war on red tape, there’s another arguing for tougher regulation of the environment and animal welfare, causes that are popular with the young voters the party has had trouble attracting.

Trying to discern which of these tendencies would triumph after an election is almost impossible. Leaving the EU might, in any case, force the government’s hand: Britain will then be a competitor of the bloc, rather than part of it. If the country cannot offer companies access to the single market and frictionless European trade and staffing, then perhaps it will be forced to undercut the rest of the EU on wages, corporation tax, and workers’ rights.

Then there’s Labour, which claims to be offering a slightly souped-up version of European social democracy, with higher taxes and well-funded public services. Yet the program already outlined by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is more radical than that—if not quite as extreme as the party’s critics depict.

Sunday’s Financial Times has taken McDonnell’s economic program seriously: He does not hide the fact that he plans an assault on capital by offering renters the chance to buy their homes at a discount; higher taxes on landlords; and a £300 billion, or $365 billion, transfer of shares from large corporations to their employees. “There is no historic precedent for this,” Dan Neidle, a partner at the law firm Clifford Chance, which drew up the figures, told the FT. “We are in completely uncharted territory.” Neidle predicted lawsuits from the affected companies and countries such as China, and potential complaints to the World Trade Organization. Labour has already confirmed that it would seek to nationalize energy companies by buying them for less than the market rate; it also plans to renationalize the postal service and railways.

It has been decades since Labour has had a program for government as left-wing as the one proposed by McDonnell—and leaving the EU would give him greater freedom to carry it out were his party to enter government. Yet if Johnson sides with the right of his cabinet, Britain is headed decisively in a libertarian direction.

In either scenario, an election that is ostensibly about the date Britain leaves the EU will be taken as a mandate for something far greater in scope. But how much discussion can there be about Britain’s future options during a six-week election campaign in the shadow of a ticking clock? And if radical reforms do follow, will the British public really feel that they have agreed to them when they received so little debate beforehand?

This is the oddness of British politics right now. The country is headed for an election that will be all about Brexit—and very little about what might come next.