Britains forked road and the vote to decide its journey
(Left to right) Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage. The election will decide not only who will rule the United Kingdom for the next five years but also determine its place in Europe.

Britain's forked road and the vote to decide its journey

On December 12 (Thursday), the British voters will elect their next Parliament.

The election to the 650-member House of Commons, variously described by political commentators and politicians as “historic, once in a generation vote,” will decide not only who will rule the United Kingdom for the next five years but also determine its place in Europe – and the world.

The outcome of the poll will determine which way Britain would go – whether it will continue to have a close relationship with the European Union (EU), or strike a risky, different path, with all its attendant implications for its economy and even its political and territorial unity.

Scotland’s ruling regional party, Scottish National Party (SNP) is already asking for another independence referendum, unhappy with the Conservatives push to take the country out of the European Union. Scotland voted to remain with the EU in the referendum.

The ruling Conservatives under Prime Minister Boris Johnson have pledged to take Britain out of the EU by the current deadline of January 31 and complete the transition with a trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020.

The main opposition, Labour Party, has been a bit equivocal about the issue, promising to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement in three months and place an improved agreement before the public for a second referendum.

Impasse over Brexit

The election, the third in the past four years to the Parliament, has been caused by protracted wrangling and the impasse in Parliament over Brexit.

Political parties were unable to come to terms with how to get out of the EU, following the result of the June 2016 referendum in Britain, when the British public voted in favour of leaving the 28 member European bloc.

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Unsurprisingly, both the ruling conservatives and the opposition Labour have been split within their ranks over this important question.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron, who ordered the referendum, more to quell a conservative back bench rebellion over European membership than out of a real desire to leave, resigned in 2016 after the referendum results went against his public position to remain in the EU.

May’s exit and Johnson’s entry

Theresa May, who succeeded him to Downing Street, ordered a snap poll in 2017 to bolster her majority in a parliament riven with internal squabbling, but ended up losing majority and had to depend on a Northern Ireland party to stitch up the numbers.

In power, May could not convince her own party to support the deal she entered into with the EU and resigned after nearly three years in office.

Enter Boris Johnson, who despite his strong pro-Leave credentials, posh oratory and some controversial parliamentary tactics, met a worse fate.

Despite famously declaring he would rather “be dead in a ditch” than ask Brussels for another extension to leaving the EU, he failed to get his Brexit Withdrawal Agreement ratified by Parliament.  Worse, Johnson was overruled by Parliament which took charge of the agenda and enacted a legislation mandating him to seek an extension beyond October 31 to leave the EU.

Johnson was also thwarted in his attempt to prorogue parliament by the UK Supreme Court.

But Boris Johnson has gambled on the assumption that the delay in getting the Brexit done would have exasperated the Leave voting public and rallied them behind him.  Hence his battle cry “Get Brexit Done”.

Corbyn makes a different pitch

However, the ideologically pro-Left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, has sought to broaden the election agenda to include other issues, notably the National Health Service, education and poverty, in the campaign mix.

On Brexit, however, the Labour leader has been less than clear.

Corbyn, who has in the past viewed the EU as a club of the elite, has been generally non- committal on his personal position about Brexit.  In the campaign trail, he has promised to negotiate a new withdrawal agreement from the EU and place it before the UK public in a second referendum.

Also read | British elections, a de facto referendum on Brexit

Boris Johnson sharply criticised this position as “lack of leadership” on the most important national issue. The British elections, despite the presence of the third mainstream party, the Liberal Democrats, has generally been a two-horse race and this time also it appears to be so, with the LibDems, who showed an initial surge with their strong Pro Remain stand, seem to be losing momentum.

The young LibDem leader, Jo Swinson, is now calling for tactical voting in select constituencies to deny the Boris Johnson a majority.

Farage plays it safe

The other Leave party, the Brexit Party under Nigel Farage, is not contesting in nearly half of the seats and hence has ceded the Leave field to the Conservatives.

The nearly month-long campaign has been rather lacklustre, with Brexit and NHS dominating the debate.

The London Bridge terror attack provided some opportunity for debate on terrorism and national security. Boris Johnson tried to blame the Labour for relaxing the terror sentencing rules but it is unclear whether the barb has worked.

The father of one of the victims of the London terror attack, condemned Boris Johnson for trying to politicise his son’s death.

Opinion polls and surveys have generally pointed to a nearly 10- point lead for the Conservatives but political pundits still feel this is the most uncertain and unpredictable election Britain has seen in recent times.

Will the Indian origin voters swing it?

How would the ethnic minority votes, especially the Indian origin voters, go is an interesting, if academic point.

The Indian origin voters who form a significant section of the ethnic minority votes, have generally tended to vote Labour in the past elections but this is showing signs of changing.

The Labour party’s criticism of Modi government’s handling of Kashmir has infuriated the Hindutva supporters in Britain who have been vocally campaigning against Labour.

But this would not affect the outcome of the national vote in a big way as the Indian vote is concentrated in select pockets and it is far from certain the Indian origin vote is a monolithic one.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in London)

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