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No end to Brexit dilemma

Despairing, disunited and distrustful, UK voters go to the polls, reports Manal Lotfy in London

Manal Lotfy , Tuesday 10 Dec 2019
Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson sends Brexit delay letter to EU
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It is December, the weather is miserable, and it is almost dark by 4pm. Nonetheless, hundreds of activists roam the streets for last-minute political gains ahead of one of the most important elections in the UK for a generation. 

Some activists knock on doors; they want to chat with voters, but few doors open. In the middle of the week, Britain was hit by a strong storm, which worsened the public’s mood even more. 

So, when I asked Addison Lee, a taxi driver who came to Britain more than 50 years ago from the Indian subcontinent, whether he would vote and who would he vote for, he said sarcastically: “I will vote for myself... I will never vote for Boris or for Corbyn,” referring to the leaders of the Conservative Party and Labour Party respectively.

 

BETWEEN TWO BAD OPTIONS: Addison is not alone. A large portion of the electorate is still not sure who to vote for, or whether to vote at all. Many believe that the choice in this election is between two bad options. 

In an illustrative move, The Financial Times, The Economist and The New Statesman publications declared that they will not endorse any political party in this election. 

The FT stated that “Britain’s fateful election offers no good choices”. “For three years and more, British politics has taken a fearful battering. Two Conservative prime ministers have gone, broken by Brexit. Parliament has polarised; the two-party system has splintered. The gulf in trust between the public and the political class has never yawned so wide. Yet rarely have Britain’s political leaders seemed so ill-equipped to respond adequately.”

“The Conservatives and Labour, colonised by populists, have abandoned the centre. Both have purged voices of moderation. Both offer illusory remedies that hark back to a half-imagined past — Boris Johnson’s nationalist Tories to the days of warm beer and empire; Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left Labour to the state control of the 1970s,” FT argued. 

As for The Guardian, it has announced that it will not endorse any party, but rather endorse an “idea”, which is to stay in the European Union, hence it is supporting the coalition of parties in favour of holding a second referendum. 

 

TOO MUCH AT STAKE: There is much at stake in this election: Brexit, the trade relationship with EU, trade with the rest of the world, schools, universities, further education and skills, NHS spending, social care, mental health, economy, austerity, capital investment, borrowing and debt, infrastructure, railways, housing, climate change, biodiversity, energy, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. 

If Addison will not vote, others will, and some for the very first time, among them Kathleen, a psychology teacher at Esher College in South London. 

Kathleen, 29-years-old, has not voted before, but her family — who voted against Brexit in 2016 Referendum — persuaded her to vote in her constituency for the Liberal Democrat candidate Monica Harding, in order to defeat the Conservative candidate and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. 

Kathleen, who does not know the Liberal Democrat candidate, is more than happy to use her vote tactically.

There are dozens of constituencies where voters will vote “tactically” in order to prevent Boris Johnson from obtaining a large majority in parliament. The Guardian published a map of 50 seats where tactical voting could keep the Conservatives out. If tactical voting happens in enough constituencies, it can ensure that the two-million majority opposed to Johnson’s Brexit plan is reflected in the new House of Commons.

 

HUNG PARLIAMENT: Tactical voting is a headache for the Conservative Party. On Tuesday, Johnson spoke of the “clear and present danger” of a Jeremy Corbyn government.

The Conservatives are concerned a Labour victory is “much closer” than their supporters think due to tactical voting.

Johnson told Brits that a vote for any party other than the Conservatives will see the country stuck in “limbo”.

Although most opinion polls give the Conservatives a 10-point lead over Labour, Mr Corbyn is closing the gap. 

Johnson has seen his lead over Labour narrow to six points, according to an opinion poll by ICM for Reuters published ahead of Thursday’s election. ICM said support for the Conservatives stood at 42 per cent, unchanged from the ICM’s previous poll a week ago, the Labour was up one point at 36 per cent.

The six-point lead was narrower than a range of between eight and 15 points in six polls published between Saturday and the early hours of Monday.

The pro-European Union Liberal Democrats were down one point at 12 per cent, while the Brexit Party was unchanged at three per cent, ICM said.

ICM surveyed 2,011 adults online, 6-9 December.

Datapraxis, which reported a 10-point lead for the Conservatives in its poll for The Sunday Times, said between 80 and 90 constituencies remain “up for grabs”. 

 

A MATTER OF TRUST: As Labour narrows the gap, Johnson’s worst nightmare is an incident in the final days that could negatively affect his campaign. And that just happened. 

The PM has come under fire for failing to address a shocking image of a four-year-old boy forced to sleep on an NHS hospital floor in Leeds, snatching the phone of a reporter attempting to show the image to the PM and putting it in his pocket. 

Sarah Williment covered her son Jack in coats to keep him warm as he waited for a bed at Leeds General Infirmary, where she had taken him last Tuesday, fearing he had pneumonia. 

“You refuse to look at the photo, you’ve taken my phone and put it in your pocket, prime minister. His mother says the NHS is in crisis. What’s your response to that?” asked ITV News reporter Joe Pike.

Johnson then muttered, “I’m sorry,” took the phone out of his pocket, glanced at the photo and called it “terrible” and then apologised to the “families and all those who have terrible experiences in the NHS”, swiftly moving on to Conservative soundbites on Brexit.

Later Health Secretary Matt Hancock was met with protesters shouting “shame on you” as he visited Leeds General Infirmary.

The episode comes as Mr Johnson faces a backlash over his remarks about EU citizens being able to “treat the UK as if it’s part of their own country.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster said the prime minister “broke his word” that the Brexit deal would not include a customs border in the Irish Sea.

 

DEEP DIVISION: If you hoped this election might end deep division in the UK, think again. On current trends, voters will deliver a contradictory verdict Thursday night. The Conservatives are on course for an overall majority in parliament, but most voters will back parties that want to block an early Brexit. If turnout is similar to the last election, the 14-15 million who will support the Conservatives or Brexit Party will be outnumbered by the 16-17 million who will vote Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green, Scottish National Party (SNP) or Plaid Cymru.

Also, a new research found that voters are more inclined to identify themselves as Leave or Remain than a supporter of a political party.

Findings by academics at Kings College London suggests the 2016 Referendum has left the country deeply polarised and that the way people voted on Europe has come to define their politics more than party allegiance. 

The Policy Institute at the university found that 55 per cent of Britons aged 18-75 said they “very strongly” identify with their Leave or Remain Brexit affiliation, up from 44 per cent on last year.

In contrast, just over a fifth said they strongly identify with their political party.

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute, said it was evidence that the electorate’s views on Brexit were continuing to “trump” party affiliation.

The data also unearthed negative feelings between party supporters and those backing rival parties.

Asked, on a scale of 0-100 (with zero being as cold as possible and 100 being warm) how they consider the other party, Labour supporters gave Conservatives just 15 out of 100 and the Tories gave Labour a score of 18.

Professor Duffy said: “These findings provide more evidence for the idea that British politics has changed dramatically in recent years.”

 

So, no likely election result will put the Brexit question to rest, or heal the divide in the UK. If anything, it could lead to the contrary.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

 

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