UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, pictured trying to ignore whatever UK PM Boris Johnson was saying (Getty Images)
UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, pictured trying to ignore whatever UK PM Boris Johnson was saying (Getty Images)

PoliticsOctober 30, 2019

Cheat sheet: A general election for Brexit Britain in less than six weeks

UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, pictured trying to ignore whatever UK PM Boris Johnson was saying (Getty Images)
UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, pictured trying to ignore whatever UK PM Boris Johnson was saying (Getty Images)

Once again, Britain is going to the polls in an attempt to dig themselves out of the utter mess they’re in around Brexit. Will this one finally sort it all out? 

What’s all this then?

A dream outcome for those who want nothing more than the chance to see big, dramatic elections: The home of Westminster democracy is going back to the polls.

Didn’t they just have one?

For a country that is meant to hold elections every five years, they’ve been busy, with general elections in both 2017 and 2015.

Does this mean they’ve finally got Brexit out of the way?

Absolutely not. Brexit was meant to happen tomorrow. There were firm commitments from the recent arrival as prime minister, Boris Johnson, that October 31 was the day the UK would leave the EU, with or without a deal, come hell or high water. But a range of parliamentary manoeuvres proved there was no majority to support that position, and now the deadline for Brexit has been extended out to next year. This election is the latest effort to sort out the deadlock.

And how will the election actually do that?

It’s been a turbulent few years, and a lot of MPs are in danger of losing their seats. Since the referendum, dozens of MPs have either switched allegiances, or had “the whip” removed – basically being kicked out for defying the party line. One way or another, the election is meant to give expression to the will of the people, and thus deliver a parliament that will be able to make a firm and final decision.

And will it? 

Doubt it. It’s possible that there will be a massive swing one way or another, and a party will end up capturing a huge share of seats. But party allegiance hasn’t been at all defining for how an MP feels about Brexit – there are Labour leavers and Conservative remainers. And if Brexit is the defining issue for voters, then a roughly equal split of leavers and remainers being reelected is likely, because the country itself remains roughly equally split. Another referendum is also possible, or at least a confirmatory referendum on whatever final deal gets agreed to.

Here’s an indication of how Brexit affected the last UK PM

Where do the polls stand right now?

It’s a very split picture, and some relatively like-minded parties could end up cancelling each other out because of Britain’s antique First Past the Post system. A relatively small number of swing seats could define the outcome. The Conservatives under Boris Johnson will be running very firmly on a pro-Brexit platform, but they could bleed support to the even more brexiteering Brexit Party, led by the Brexit poster boy Nigel Farage. In the recent European elections, the Brexit Party ended up winning the largest number of MEPs.

But it could happen to other parties too. Currently the Liberal Democrats are polling in the high teens to early 20s. They’re by far the strongest remain voice currently in parliament. Labour’s position on Brexit is murky and weird and hard to sum up in a single line, which reflects that their constituents are similarly split. The party is hoping that an election will make voters focus on non-Brexit issues, and the appeal of their socialist-leaning manifesto can carry the party’s fortunes above the mid-20s that their polling currently languishes in.

Is the timing of the election important?

It’s certainly interesting. The election required two-thirds of MPs to vote for it, because of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which mandates that elections can only be held every five years. It will also be the first time an election has been held in December – a bloody grim time of the year in Britain – since 1923. And finally, it will be held on the 12th of December, not the 9th, as some sought – that seems like a weird distinction, but basically it was an attempt by the parties with more young supporters to have an election while students were still at university.

Who’s going to win?

At the moment polling strongly suggests the Conservatives will win the most seats, and potentially even a majority. That would almost certainly allow Boris Johnson to “get Brexit done”, as he keeps repeating. But in the 2017 campaign, the Conservatives fell away badly, with Labour and Jeremy Corbyn making huge gains among young voters especially, despite the party being horribly internally divided. It’s still horribly internally divided, Corbyn is still the leader, and there’s still a good chance they could make it happen again.

But moreover, the seat share of other parties will be crucial, particularly regional parties. Currently the government is propped up by the Northern Irish DUP, who have 10 seats and are unlikely to pick up many more. The Scottish National Party have 35, and could go quite a bit higher. The Liberal Democrats have 19, far more than they won at the last election since many remain-supporting defectors have ended up under their banner. The Brexit Party don’t hold any seats right now, but will have a few targets, and could try and do a deal to not stand against the Conservatives in certain key seats. Even the Greens could make gains, from their current solitary seat.

What about the preferred PM stakes?

Boris Johnson has arguably made himself much less popular during his tenure as PM, and is now recording hugely negative personal approval ratings. And with the country at large, Jeremy Corbyn is even less popular. Whoever Britain decides to elect, it’s fair to assume a large majority of the public will hate them.

Could England winning the Rugby World Cup change things?

Come on, they’re not New Zealand. Every English rugby supporter is already a Tory anyway. There was a minor tabloid kerfuffle recently when Corbyn was pictured sleeping on a train while the game against the All Blacks was on.

So the most likely outcome? 

A very hard call, but we’re guessing a minority government, and certainly more likely a Conservative minority government. It’s an incredibly unpredictable picture ahead of us, with the only certainty being six weeks of mayhem.

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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