The Last Chance to Stop Brexit

An election set for December will define Britain’s path: whether it will, improbably, stay in the European Union or depart on Boris Johnson’s terms.

Boris Johnson delivers a speech at the dispatch box in Parliament's House of Commons.
Handout via Reuters

The last time the United Kingdom held a general election in December—when some parts of the country have just seven hours of daylight—was in 1923. Then, the country’s third-biggest party, the Liberals, took more than 100 seats, leading to a hung Parliament.

It is precisely that kind of deadlock that Britain is hoping to avoid with its next election, set for December 12. For months, every single major party has claimed to want a public vote, and now we finally have one coming. What changed? This week, the European Union granted Britain a three-month extension to its Brexit deadline, moving the new leaving date to January 31. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had tried three times to secure parliamentary approval for an election, but opposition parties blocked it, insisting they were doing so to prevent a chaotic “no deal” exit from the EU. With that immediate threat removed, the calculation changed.

Yet for all the faux-festive cheer, upbeat sound bites, and endless sloganeering that are likely to come in the ensuing election campaign, the truth is that this vote represents a desperate gamble on all sides.

For the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists, the two smaller pro-EU parties whose softening toward the idea of an election paved the way for one, this is a last stand against Brexit. Both have capitalized on the anger of many former Remain voters in the three years since the referendum. But once a Brexit deal is passed—Johnson’s agreement with the EU has already made it through key stages in Parliament—and the U.K. leaves the EU, where does that energy go? Rejoining the bloc would come with a string of conditions, and could be vetoed by an existing member. Holding an election now means the Lib Dems can fight on a simple platform—“cancel Brexit.” (A Lib Dem–majority government would retract Britain’s notice of its intention to leave.) The Scottish Nationalist Party, meanwhile, gets a chance to air its core message, stressing the benefits of independence: Why should Scotland, which voted Remain, be taken out of the EU by a Parliament in London?

Like the smaller parties, Johnson’s Conservatives also want this election to be about Brexit—epitomized by their dubious pledge to “get Brexit done.” (The formal process of leaving merely kicks off years of negotiations about the future relationship between the U.K. and the EU.) Johnson is ahead in the polls—but so was the party’s previous leader, Theresa May, as she headed into the last election two years ago, and she still managed to lose her majority. Under Johnson, the party has moved away from the center ground and become less small-c conservative. It is now closer to the rabble-rousing instincts of right-wing populism than to the patrician geniality of many of its former leaders.

Its commitment to holding the United Kingdom together—its official name is the Conservative and Unionist Party—is also in question, as Johnson decided to solve the Brexit impasse by allowing Northern Ireland to remain more closely aligned to Europe than to the rest of the country. Its insistence on the importance of “austerity” and slashing public spending to reduce the budget deficit is also gone. Johnson has promised to spend more on the police, for example, without announcing tax increases to match. The Resolution Foundation, an independent think tank, estimated that the next budget would see the U.K. missing its deficit target by £16 billion.

Great news for the main opposition, Labour? Not quite. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, outperformed expectations in the last election, but conditions look tougher this time. His personal ratings are dire, his party has been dogged by accusations of tolerating anti-Semitism, and his stance on Brexit—renegotiating a deal, then putting it to a public vote—is considered lily-livered by many of his own activists, who are overwhelmingly anti-Brexit. Labour’s seats encompass both Remain- and Leave-voting areas, and Corbyn has tried to keep his electoral coalition together with a nuanced (some might say vague) position. The election campaign will put that under enormous strain. It looks as though Labour’s answer to the awkwardness of its Brexit position will be to change the subject. Its first fundraising promotion after the election was called, sent out in Corbyn’s name, did not even mention the word, focusing instead on attacks on Big Business, the elite, and the mainstream media.

In 2017, May called a vote to “crush the saboteurs” who she claimed were blocking Brexit. But Labour adeptly campaigned on other issues, big and small: school funding, ivory sales, fox hunting, the future of the National Health Service. It will hope to repeat that trick this time. The relentless media focus on Brexit has obscured the fact that after nearly 10 years of “austerity,” many parts of the public realm feel frayed and tired: potholes on the roads, closed libraries and courts, rising poverty among children and pensioners. This is what Labour wants to talk about. But with Britain’s exit from the EU now an imminent possibility, and a plausible Conservative deal on the table, that will be a constant struggle. Brexit has also become a culture war—shorthand for a contest of values—further challenging Labour’s attempts to straddle the Remain/Leave divide.

Already this feels like the most consequential British election of my career: a contest over not just Brexit, but the type of country the U.K. wants to be. The vote on December 12 could, in theory, stop Brexit—but it could also endorse Boris Johnson’s plan for an ultra-hard form of it. As the nights draw in, the hopes of pro-Europeans are fading. This is their last chance.