On Thursday, Great Britain will go to polls for the third time in four years, with voters making what a widely quoted former Conservative politician has described as an “appalling choice” between a “compulsive liar” and a “totalitarian” in a general election that will define their country’s destiny.
These will be Britain’s Brexit elections, which it has brought upon itself so it can take the next steps in the ongoing process of divorce from the European Union (EU) that the referendum of 2016 chose. The new government will decide whether the United Kingdom (UK) leaves the EU early in 2020 — and if so, what sort of relationship it will have with Europe in the future.
How did these elections come about?
David Cameron, who became Prime Minister in 2010, won a second term in the elections of 2015, but resigned within weeks of the referendum of June 23, 2016, in which Britain voted to leave the EU. Theresa May, who succeeded Cameron, called a snap general election in the hope of getting a stronger hand to negotiate Brexit. However, the elections of June 8, 2017 ended up reducing the Conservative Party to a minority in the Commons after their numbers fell to 317 from 330. In July this year, May resigned, after Parliament rejected her Brexit deal thrice.
Johnson, the man May’s party chose to replace her, faced rebellions from within, which resulted in Parliament blocking the Brexit deal that he negotiated. The Prime Minister wanted fresh elections; however, provisions of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, 2011 could be bypassed only with the support of two-thirds of MPs. At the end of October, Labour agreed to the elections — once they had made sure that Brexit had been pushed back to January 31, 2020 from the previous deadline of October 31, 2019. Parliament was dissolved on November 6.
How will Thursday’s voting take place?
The system is similar to India’s. Voters will choose representatives for 650 seats in the House of Commons. All British, Irish and qualifying Commonwealth citizens who are 18 years of age, living in Britain, and who had registered by the deadline of November 26, will vote. Voting will be by ballot papers at polling booths or by postal ballots, or by proxy under certain circumstances.
Polls will open at 7 am local time and close at 10 pm. Results of an exit poll, which is far more reliable than in India, will be announced soon after polls close. Official results will come in as ballot papers are counted through the night. Like in India, the UK has a first-past-the-post system, and the candidate who wins the largest number of votes in a particular constituency will become its MP.
Who are the key players in the election?
Johnson, Conservative Party: The Prime Minister, whose full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, is 55, and one of Britain’s premier Brexiteers, who has promised to “unleash the potential of the whole UK”. He has asked voters for a clear majority in order to “get Brexit done” by quickly passing his deal, so that the UK can be out of the EU next month. He then wants to begin negotiations with Europe for a set of free trade terms, and wrap up the process by its December 31, 2020 deadline. The Tories have also promised more funds for the National Health Service and for police.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party: He has been leader of Labour since 2015, describes himself as a socialist, and is frequently seen as being a bit too left-wing, with unworkably radical foreign policy opinions. He is also rather unpopular — perhaps more than Johnson, who is not very popular himself.
On Brexit, Corbyn has waffled, and the Labour manifesto has laid out a convoluted roadmap: it says it will renegotiate the Brexit deal in three months; then, within six months, hold another referendum to get the people’s view on whether they want to leave the EU with this new deal, or would prefer to stay on in Europe after all.
This will need time, and the EU’s consent — and Corbyn has said he himself will be “neutral” on whether to leave or remain. Labour’s problem is that a large part of its base wants to Remain, but it also has support in working class seats that voted Leave.
Labour has promised free university tuition, greater health spending, more taxes on the rich, and nationalisation of railways and broadband Internet.
Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrats: The Lib-Dems are pro-Remain, and their leader, Swinson, 39, wants to stop Brexit altogether. They can make a difference if a tight election returns a hung Parliament, and they win a few key seats. As of now, Swinson has said she won’t back either of the two major parties.
Nigel Farage, Brexit Party: The party has a one-point agenda, and Farage, unlike Johnson, wants to just walk out of the EU immediately, without a deal. The Brexit Party is not challenging the Tories in the 317 seats they won the last time, which is likely to help Johnson by not splitting the Brexit vote. However, Farage will likely hurt him in other seats that may see a close contests.
Also read | Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn? What the latest polls and bookies say about the UK elections
And who seems likely to win?
In recent YouGov polls, the Conservatives have been seeing about a 10-point lead, and even though Labour has been picking up of late, the elections could still give Johnson a small majority of around 28 seats, according to latest estimates. Analysts, however, have been cautioning that 11 seats were decided by fewer than 100 votes in 2017, and many more by a few hundred votes — so even small shifts could swing the election around. Like in India, “tactical voting” has been widely discussed in the run-up to the elections.