Argument

Is Britain’s Election Really About Brexit?

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are campaigning on the assumption that nothing else matters. The Labour Party is betting that voters care more about bread-and-butter issues.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wears boxing gloves emblazoned with "Get Brexit Done" as he poses for a photograph at Jimmy Egan's Boxing Academy in Manchester, England on Nov. 19.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wears boxing gloves emblazoned with "Get Brexit Done" as he poses for a photograph at Jimmy Egan's Boxing Academy in Manchester, England on Nov. 19. FRANK AUGSTEIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to the Brexit election. Or so many people are calling it. But how, if at all, has the issue of the United Kingdom’s possible exit from the European Union shaped today’s vote? And how might the outcome, which will probably be declared in the early hours of Friday morning in the U.K., impact the country’s relationship with the EU?

First, it’s worth paying attention to who is calling this a Brexit election and who isn’t. The Conservative Party’s manifesto is titled “Get Brexit Done: Unleash Britain’s Potential.” The Liberal Democrats, for their part, exhort voters to “Stop Brexit: Build a Brighter Future.”

The approach of the Labour Party, however, is very different. As leader Jeremy Corbyn states baldly in the foreword to his party’s manifesto: “Some people say this is the Brexit election. But it’s also the climate election, the investment election, the NHS election, the living standards election, the education election, the poverty election, the fair taxes election. Above all, it’s the change election.”

Corbyn is banking on Brexit fatigue and betting that voters will prioritize bread-and-butter issues such as jobs, investment,  and health care, over abstract promises of a post-Brexit future.

Indeed, so preoccupied was the Labour Party with ensuring that Brexit was not the only—or even the major—issue in the election that the party complained to the broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom, about the decision taken by broadcaster Sky News to brand its coverage of the vote as the “Brexit election.”

The reasons are not hard to discern. Of all the parties, Labour is the one that has struggled most to formulate a clear and intelligible position on the issue that has dominated British politics for the last three years.

While the Conservatives want to get Brexit done and the Liberal Democrats want to halt it, Corbyn has laid out a plan to renegotiate a new deal with the EU and put it to the British people in a referendum. And he has done so while maintaining a position of neutrality on the issue that arguably divides Britons more than any other.

Corbyn wants the political gain of scooping up the votes of those opposed to Brexit, without the political pain of losing support among Leave voters. Little wonder, then, that Labour has been desperate to talk about anything but Brexit during the campaign. Attacking the Conservatives’ nine-year record in government while promising a root-and-branch reform of the British economy is seen as the most effective strategy.

Key to this strategy—and a sign of its success—has been Labour’s efforts to make protecting the future of the U.K.’s National Health Service a campaign issue: an issue that has consistently vied for attention with Brexit as the most important for voters. A poll last week showed that 58 percent of voters ranked health care as very important to them; 53 percent mentioned Brexit.

Yet it’s worth noting that even those political leaders who want to talk about Brexit don’t want to do so in detail. The campaign has been a tribute to the effectiveness of Prime Minister Boris Johnson at casting the Brexit debate as a binary choice: a straight fight between getting it done and some underspecified alternative.

Consequently, this Brexit election has seen remarkably little detailed debate about the Brexit process itself. This became clear when the Labour Party unearthed a government document that underlined the fact that there would be customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland under the terms of the agreement negotiated by the prime minister—an issue regarded as an existential threat by the Conservatives’ former Northern Irish allies, the Democratic Unionist Party. The response? Collective lack of interest on the part of the public.

So, on Brexit, British voters have a choice between a party that doesn’t want to talk about the details and a party that doesn’t want to discuss the issue at all.

Yet the details matter. If the Conservatives win a majority, there is ample room for doubt about their claim that they can get Brexit done in the sense of both ending U.K. membership and negotiating a trade deal by the end of next year. Trade negotiations take time. And all the more so when near neighbors and close trading partners are attempting to reconstruct their trading relationship. The EU will want to carefully examine the implications of any putative agreement before signing off.

Moreover, the British relationship with the EU extends far beyond trade to the sharing of databases by police forces and military cooperation. Any agreement that does justice to the breadth of the links in place will be complicated and will take time to agree.

And so almost as soon as the U.K. has left the EU (which it will do should the Conservatives secure an absolute majority of even one seat) Britain would confront another of those Brexit deadlines. The Conservatives have promised in their manifesto not to extend the transition period—an arrangement to keep the relationship pretty much as it is—beyond the end of next year. And the deadline for asking for such an extension is the end of June 2020. Should no deal have been agreed by that point, would they really stick to their word and risk there being no trade or security arrangements in place with the EU at all?

Getting Brexit done, as Boris Johnson likes to promise, will not be as easy as it sounds.

Getting Brexit done, then, will not be as easy as it sounds. Yet nor would the alternative. Labour’s six-month timetable for negotiating a new Brexit deal with the EU and holding a referendum is ambitious to say the least. And it would involve legislating for a contentious referendum in a hung Parliament. Labour cannot win a majority in this election; its best hope is leading a coalition government.

Given the likely demands of the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats, it is perfectly possible that Parliament may prove incapable of passing any such legislation, which would mean another election in the spring.

So yes, this election will shape the course of Brexit. Yet it is hard to see how Brexit will be “done” any time soon. Both major parties are making promises they will find hard to keep. And at a time when faith in U.K. politics is at worryingly low levels, this is not something that will increase the trust of the British people in their political leaders.

Anand Menon is a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London and the director of The UK in a Changing Europe. Twitter: @anandmenon1

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