U.K.'s party leaders brace for Brexit election Dec. 12
Voters going to the polls after Parliament approves early election
Finally, the U.K.'s political ice floes are moving. After three years of Brexit impasse, an election in six weeks may break the logjam. Or it may just rearrange the ice pack, keeping the the nation trapped half in and half out of the European Union.
Official campaigning for the Dec. 12 poll hasn't even started yet, but Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn were already laying out their key arguments for a Brexit-dominated election as they sparred Wednesday in the House of Commons.
Johnson claimed his left-wing rival would subject the country to endless "dither and delay" over its EU departure, while Corbyn accused Johnson of planning to slash employment rights and sell off chunks of the U.K.'s health service after Brexit.
The partisan displays came a day after the House of Commons approved an early election, 2½ years before the U.K. is next scheduled to go to the polls. The date will become law once it is approved Wednesday by the unelected House of Lords, which doesn't have the power to overrule the elected Commons.
While Johnson's Conservative Party has a wide lead in most opinion polls, analysts say the election is unpredictable because Brexit cuts across traditional party loyalties. For many voters, their Identities as "leavers" or "remainers" are more important than party affiliation,
The Conservatives face a challenge for pro-Brexit voters from Nigel Farage's Brexit Party, which wants to leave the EU without any deal on future relations. The centrist Liberal Democrats, who want to cancel Brexit, are wooing pro-EU supporters from the Conservatives and Labour in the U.K.'s big cities and liberal university towns.
'We need to be relieved of this purgatory'
All parties worry that that they could be hurt by voters' Brexit fatigue. Britons are tired and grumpy as they face the third major electoral event in as many years, after the country's 2016 EU membership referendum and a 2017 election called by Johnson's predecessor Theresa May to try to boost the Conservatives' majority and strengthen her hand in negotiations with the EU. Instead, the party ended up losing its majority in Parliament, and May failed to pass her plans for leaving the EU.
"This has become Groundhog Day,"' said Patricia Sharman, a Brexit supporter who for almost a year has been coming to stand outside Parliament with her "no betrayal" sign. She thought she would be able to stop on Thursday, the U.K.'s scheduled EU departure date. This week the EU postponed Brexit until Jan. 31 because of the political gridlock in London.
"We need to be relieved of this purgatory," Sharman said.
Johnson is hoping to win over voters like Sharman, even though he failed to deliver on his vow that the U.K. would leave the EU on Oct. 31 "come what may." He'll campaign as a leader who has been stymied by an obstructive Parliament in his mission to deliver Brexit.
Johnson struck a divorce deal laying out the terms of the orderly departure from the EU, which was approved in principle by lawmakers. But he withdrew it after Parliament demanded more time to scrutinize it.
Johnson said Wednesday that his top priority was "getting Brexit done and ending the dither and delay."
Labour is seeking to project unity despite divisions over whether to go through with Brexit. After much internal wrangling, the party backs a new referendum on whether to stay in the EU or leave — but has not said which side it would support.
The left-of-centre party is calculating that voters want to talk about issues such as health care, the environment and social welfare — all of which saw years of funding cuts by Conservative governments — instead of more Brexit debates.
Labour also argues that Johnson's Brexit deal will leave the country poorer, an assessment backed by many economists. Independent think-tank the National Institute of Economic and Social Research said Wednesday that leaving on those terms would make the U.K.'s economy 3.5 per cent smaller in a decade compared with staying in the European Union.
Corbyn claimed Wednesday that Brexit on Johnson's terms would bring a "sell-out deal with Donald Trump" in which chunks of the U.K.'s state-funded health service would be sold to U.S. medical providers and drug companies as part of future trade negotiations.
Johnson retorted that Labour had flipflopped on Brexit — "Now 'leave,' now 'remain,' refusing to accept the verdict of the people in the referendum on the EU."
Watch: Jeremy Corbyn talks about the expected early election
The election pits Johnson, a brash Brexit champion with a shock of blond hair and a Latin quip for all occasions, against Corbyn, a stolid socialist with long-held — and, foes say, archaic — policies of nationalization and tax hikes for the rich.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, noted that in the 2017 election, Corbyn did far better than opinion polls had predicted.
"Having said that, I think we do need to remember he's not up against one of the worst campaigners for the Conservative Party in living memory — Theresa May. He's up against one of the best, Boris Johnson," Bale said.
He said Johnson had a "celebrity star status which blinds quite a lot of voters to what some would consider his fairly obvious faults."
Those include a history of offensive comments and an ongoing inquiry into claims Johnson handed out public funds meant for business startups to a friend while he was mayor of London.
As the U.K. prepares to vote, the clock is ticking down to the new Brexit deadline of Jan. 31, the date approved by the EU this week. If December's election produces a Parliament as divided as the current one, another delay to Brexit — and a fourth national vote in four years — could be on the cards.
"If Johnson gets a majority, then we're leaving the EU," Bale said. "If we end up with another hung Parliament, I would have thought the only way to get a decision would be a second referendum. Although MPs aren't keen on the idea, there would seem to be no other way out of the impasse."
EU: risk of no-deal Brexit still exists
The EU's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Wednesday the risk of the U.K.'s chaotic departure from the bloc without a divorce agreement still existed, and that future trade talks would be "difficult and demanding."
"The risk of Brexit happening without a ratified deal still exists," Barnier told a speech in Brussels. "We still need to prepare."
He said a no-deal split could happen at the end of January, if the U.K. Parliament failed to ratify Johnson's agreement and London did not get another delay on the divorce.
Watch: EU's Barnier says risk of no-deal Brexit still exists
It could also happen at the end of the status-quo transition period envisaged after Brexit until the end of 2020, Barnier said, if no new trade deal is agreed between the two sides by then and no extra time is given to achieve that.
The negotiator warned there was precious little time between the Brexit day and the end of 2020 to agree a new trade deal.
"It will be a difficult and demanding set of negotiations," he said. "The time we have at hand to conclude this negotiation will be extremely short, 11 months."
"Because of our geographic closeness and our economic interdependence … we want to have solid guarantees on the level-playing field aspects."
Barnier warned the bloc will only give the U.K. as much access to its single market after Brexit as is justified by London ensuring that EU rules and standards are preserved.
"We will keep a close watch and be extremely vigilant on … social rights, environmental protection, state aid and obviously on issues of taxation."
"We want zero tariffs, zero quotas and zero dumping."