A December Brexit Election to Remember
October 29, 2019
When the European Council agreed to extend the Brexit deadline from October 31 to January 31, 2020, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit was postponed for the third time this year. Neither the European Union (particularly France) nor the UK government under prime minister Boris Johnson wanted this extension but the British parliament did, forcing the government to ask for it. But now that both parties have it, what will the United Kingdom do with it? Consider holding a general election, of course.
The election will be held on Thursday, December 12. Why such a timing? Not since the 1920s has a UK general election been held in December. Cold weather and early sunsets (the northernmost constituencies will enjoy less than six hours of sunlight in mid-December) may impact campaigning and turnout, with unexpected outcomes.
This is an election that everyone and no one wants, all at the same time. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and Liberal Democrats—both have strongly and consistently opposed Brexit—believe a new election is the only way to stop the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. They are convinced that parliament will not support a second referendum, so the only other plausible route is an election. To borrow Mr. Johnson’s phrase, this is their “do-or-die” moment.
Boris Johnson and the Conservatives have already asked parliament three times for a general election, eagerly waiting to wage an electoral campaign against the current parliament. They hope opinion polls are correct (Conservatives: 36%; Labour 24%; Lib Dems 18%; Brexit Party 11%) and that Conservatives will increase their representation in the House of Commons, which will give them a clear majority to pass through Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB).
But some Conservatives are concerned about heading into this general election not having left the European Union. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party continues to attack the prime minister for failing in his ‘do-or-die’ pledge to achieve Brexit by Halloween, draining political support and pulling the Conservative Party further to the right.
The Labour party has been deeply divided on the general election as it has been on Brexit for the past three years. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been eager for an election as he did surprisingly well during the June 2017 general election. But most Labour members of parliament are strongly opposed to the election and fear support for the party could collapse. Jeremy Corbyn has the lowest approval ratings of any major party leader since recording began. If he were not party leader, Labour’s electoral fortunes could be quite different. Near-term steps could be taken to attempt to remove Mr. Corbyn as leader.
Should parliament approve the mid-December election date, this will be the singular most difficult British election to predict. Boris Johnson and the Conservatives could win a large majority, enabling him to push his Brexit bill through the new parliament swiftly and allowing the United Kingdom to leave the European Union by the extension deadline of January 31, 2020. At this point, the United Kingdom would be poised to begin negotiations for a free trade agreement with the European Union (and presumably the United States as well). This UK-EU FTA must be completed by December 31, 2020 or there is a chance that this date becomes a new no-deal Brexit date (it represents the end of the transition or implementation period).
But it is equally likely that a new parliament might be just as divided as the current one. Voters who oppose Brexit may vote tactically, which could help the Labour Party despite the unpopularity of its leader. The Lib Dems and SNP are both expected to make gains, too. It all means that, despite their poll lead, the Conservatives could again fail to secure a majority.
Whereas, in the new parliament, the SNP, Lib Dems, and Labour might agree to a common approach to Brexit based around a second referendum, the Conservatives will not be able to call on support from anywhere (assuming the Brexit Party does not win any seats). Even the Democratic Unionist Party, who kept Theresa May in power after the 2017 election, will not support the Withdrawal Agreement Bill because it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the Kingdom. The WAB could stall again. And the United Kingdom would be back to square one—perhaps even asking the European Union for yet another extension to Brexit.