- - Thursday, December 5, 2019

LONDON — British voters next week will choose, yet again, who should chart their country out of its Brexit quagmire in what some are calling the strangest election in living memory.

The main choices in the snap election: Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a mop-topped, bitingly loquacious former journalist and ally of President Trump who says a Conservative victory is essential to finishing the job on Brexit; and opposition Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps the most leftist major British party candidate in decades, running on a strongly socialist agenda while fending off a charge from a leading British Orthodox rabbi that his party is rampant with anti-Semitism.

Throw in a slew of smaller parties fiercely for and anti-Brexit and a stew of other domestic issues, and it has become a bewildering political landscape that has proved frustrating and confusing to British voters.

Polls say Conservatives began the campaign with a sizable lead but Labor and anti-Brexit parties have been steadily cutting into the margin and have the late momentum.

“I used to have convictions about who I’d vote for,” said Tom Hills, 30, a chemical engineer from London. “But this is the strangest election I can remember.”



Since the 2016 referendum in which the British voted to leave the European Union, Mr. Johnson’s two Conservative prime minister predecessors have been driven from office. The early general election Thursday will be the second one called in a bid to resolve the Brexit crisis and the first one in nearly a century to be held during the Christmas season.

No one is ruling out a last-minute event or revelation that could sway the vote.

Pundits say Mr. Johnson scored a victory of sorts this week as he carried out his hosting duties for a gathering of NATO leaders in London while avoiding any political damage from Mr. Trump’s visit.

The U.S. president, a strong backer of Mr. Johnson but a deeply unpopular figure with much of the electorate, largely managed to honor a pledge to refrain from commenting on the looming vote while talking up the prospects of a post-Brexit bilateral trade deal that Mr. Johnson covets.

“Donald Trump has concluded a two-day visit to the UK without doing anything likely to jeopardize the chances of his close ally Boris Johnson winning the general election,” political blogger Andrew Sparrow wrote Wednesday in the left-leaning Guardian newspaper. “Given Trump’s toxic reputation … Tory strategists had been concerned that any form of endorsement might be counter-productive.”

Mr. Johnson and Mr. Corbyn have also sparred furiously over blame for an attack late last week on London Bridge, where a knife-wielding terrorist left two dead and three wounded before police fatally shot him.

Mr. Johnson blamed parole policies put into place under the last Labor government that allowed the attacker to go free after just eight years behind bars. Mr. Corbyn pointed to what he said were years of cuts to the police, prison and parole services by Conservative governments that left the system unable to monitor offenders.

Stretched loyalties

Traditional party loyalties are being stretched to their limits as Mr. Johnson’s Tories ditch their customary platform of lower taxes and spending in favor of promises to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure projects, the National Health Service and the pursuit of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Meanwhile, Labor under Mr. Corbyn is trying to broaden the election debate to social and domestic issues beyond Brexit, even as it deals with sharp internal divisions over the charges of tolerating anti-Semitism.

Mr. Corbyn, who scored surprisingly well in the snap election that Prime Minister Theresa May called in 2017 in search of a quick Brexit deal, was widely criticized for refusing to apologize in a recent TV interview with the BBC.

He has also promised to outspend the Tories with a commitment to offer free high-speed Wi-Fi for every home in the kingdom and to plant 2 billion trees by 2040.

While much of the world focuses on what the vote will mean for Brexit, political analysts say domestic issues will play a critical role in the vote.

“The conservatives have done a brilliant job of persuading the media — if not necessarily the voters — that they’re going to spend a lot of money,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and deputy director of The U.K. in a Changing Europe, a nonpartisan research group. “It’s all smoke and mirrors. Apart from more money for the [National Health Service], at least for a year or two, there isn’t a great deal going on.”

All of this is happening against the Brexit backdrop. Several of the smaller pro-EU parties have agreed not to run against one another in several constituencies in a rare bid not to split the “remain” vote.

“This election is the weirdest in my lifetime,” former Prime Minister Tony Blair said recently. Mr. Blair, the only Labor prime minister to win three consecutive elections, has had some critical words for the party’s policies and equivocal stance on Brexit.

Mr. Hills, who traditionally votes Labor, said he will reluctantly stick with the party despite his concerns of racism within its ranks.

“I’m not enthralled by Jeremy Corbyn, but I like my local Labor candidate,” he said. “The Tories have anti-Islamic issues too. Neither party is trying to take the high ground, which is super depressing.”

It’s Labor’s issue with anti-Semitism that has been dominating front pages, not least because Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, launched an exceptional attack on the party’s record. He said the problem has taken root and is “sanctioned from the very top” of the party and people should “vote with their conscience.”

“The chief rabbi’s intervention is hugely undermining for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labor Party,” said Mr. Bale. “Right now, I wouldn’t bet against Boris Johnson and the Conservatives winning with a working, and possibly even comfortable, majority.”

Betting favorite

Polls suggest Mr. Johnson is the betting favorite to secure a Conservative majority in Parliament. But the polls also pointed strongly to a Tory victory in 2017, when the party lost seats and had to find minority partners in order to stay in power.

Mr. Hills fears things look bleak for Labor, despite a string of humiliating legislative defeats for Mr. Johnson this year in trying to push Brexit past the finish line

Jeremy Corbyn is a success with a left-wing minority, but he’s a failure with the center ground that he needs to win to form a majority government,” Mr. Hills said.

Less than a week of campaigning is left to go, and if recent British political history has shown anything, analysts say, it’s that nothing is a foregone conclusion. The national conversation will inevitably move past Labor’s woes and return to Brexit. Three years after the referendum, many still wonder how the U.K. should deal with it.

So far, it has been through delays and political chaos.

“We’ve spent years arguing about it and have still not reached a conclusion,” said Tim Oliver, a political analyst at Loughborough University London. “Defining what Brexit should mean remains the fight of U.K. politics.”

If the Tories do win, they will push through the deal they have negotiated and the country will probably leave the European Union in the new year, Mr. Bale said.

If Labor wins, Mr. Corbyn said, the party will attempt to negotiate a new deal and put it to voters in a second referendum. If a consortium of pro-remain parties can cobble together enough seats to form a government, then they could simply stop Brexit without a second referendum.

It’s anyone’s game to win, and British voters are less certain of whom to support than ever before, Mr. Bale said.

“I’ve observed an awful lot of U.K. elections, and I can’t remember one where so many voters are so disappointed with what’s on offer from both the main parties,” he said.

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