LONDON—Britain is headed for its first Christmas election since 1923 but don’t expect “goodwill to all” in a rancorous campaign that may mark the climax of a Brexit battle that has radicalized both sides.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been manoeuvring for months to set up a “People vs. Parliament” election designed to undermine faith in the institutions that once made England “the mother of parliaments.”
At last he has secured the backing of the opposition parties, and will now go head-to-head with Jeremy Corbyn, who dreams of overturning the entire capitalist system after taking control of the Labour Party with his left-wing allies. He is pledging to stand on the “most radical and ambitious” policy platform the country has ever seen.
The House of Lords was set on Wednesday night to debate the bill to hold an election on Dec. 12 after it was approved on Tuesday by the House of Commons.
Johnson hopes he can win just the second Conservative majority since 1992 by promising to “Get Brexit done” if he is returned to power more than three years after the country voted to quit the European Union. He hopes to stoke the frustrations of those who think Britain should have left by now.
The Conservatives under Theresa May called an election with an almost identical message in 2017. That was rebuffed by voters who decided public services were more important than Brexit, but the charismatic Johnson replaced May as party leader earlier this year after making a “do or die” pledge to get Britain out of the EU by Halloween, whether parliament agreed to help him or not.
Despite reaching a deal with Brussels and winning support in principle from the House of Commons, he pulled his deal from parliament—much to the consternation of some Conservative colleagues who believe he was hellbent on securing an election that would pit parliament as the enemy rather than simply delivering Brexit.
After trying to explain to The Daily Beast why Johnson had pulled his own deal from parliament, Dominic Grieve, who was in May’s Cabinet alongside him, said the prime minister had become “a populist demagogue who is unable to tell the truth.”
Johnson has battled to unite the Leave voters behind him by using increasingly hostile, populist language after the Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage won the European Parliament elections in May. Johnson accused fellow lawmakers of “sabotaging” Brexit and “surrendering” to Brussels.
Following repeated failures to exit the EU, Conservative election strategists are hoping a bumper new majority will ensure their next attempt is third time lucky. The election results are expected to be announced in the early hours of Friday Dec. 13.
As parliament was agreeing to an election on Tuesday night, Farage opened his daily radio show by airily dismissing Johnson’s election strategy. “‘Get Brexit done’ is a great campaign slogan…” he said, “if people believe it.”
Farage hopes to eat into the Conservatives’ opinion poll lead by savaging the prime minister for failing to deliver on his pledge to take Britain out of the E.U. this week. Johnson famously said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask for another Brexit extension and yet on Monday he signed a letter accepting a delay until Jan. 31.
Johnson’s Conservatives currently boast a 10-point poll lead over Labour. That is less than half of the lead enjoyed by May when she called an election two years ago, but No. 10 hopes Corbyn will not be able to repeat the campaign turnaround which saw that gap reduced to just six points in six weeks.
Johnson may have to win by more than six points if he is to secure a working majority in the House of Commons in December because of the way the British electoral system works. Corbyn, Labour’s most radical leader for decades, is confident that he can overcome the poll deficit against Johnson by putting forward the boldest platform in party history and shifting the debate away from Brexit.
Lawmakers from his own party, most of whom are far more moderate, frankly do not believe him. Many of them fear they are about to lose their seats.
Veteran Labour politician Barry Sheerman blamed Corbyn’s hard-left advisers for the decision to back a Christmas election. “Sheer madness to hold a General Election in December & on Boris Johnson’s agenda!” he wrote on Twitter. “A clear majority of our Shadow cabinet were against a December election yesterday but Jeremy Corbyn has been persuaded to override them.”
The election offers the British electorate the chance to halt Brexit by voting in Labour who pledge to hold a second referendum, but many arch-Remainers were disappointed on Tuesday fearing that the Conservatives will win the election.
Ultimately, it was the decision by leaders of the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party whose support made the election inevitable. Both believe they stand to gain seats and the parties could well hold the balance of power if Johnson does not secure a majority of his own.
Labour lawmaker David Lammy was among those who defied the party whip to vote against the election. As news was breaking that his leader would support the vote on Tuesday, he was appearing at an event to promote a second referendum. “Will a general election solve our problems? I've got to tell you I don't think it will,” he said. “I've been critical of the leadership of my party, I was very critical at the European elections where we got a drubbing from the electorate because of a confused position on the issue of the day which was Brexit.”
Corbyn has refused to bow to pressure from his pro-European colleagues to adopt a clear Remain position, after he personally spent decades arguing against the EU from the Left.
While Lammy sat glum-faced, Corbyn was on the other side of St. James Park with his Shadow Cabinet recording an upbeat video that celebrated the upcoming election.
Many of Corbyn’s closest allies think he will shock the political establishment with a radical manifesto. “Of course!” he’s going to win, one veteran of Corbyn’s 2017 campaign team told The Daily Beast. “The two big themes for Labour will be living standards and climate change. And they converge in the green new deal.”
A British version of the green economic package promoted by American Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been working its way up through the Labour Party.
The foundation of the policy was adopted at the party’s annual conference last month. “The policy I get most excited about is our green industrial revolution,” said lawmaker Rebecca Long-Bailey at the Socialist Campaign Group rally on the final night of the conference. “For me it goes right to the heart of what socialism is about. It's about using the hugest economic lever that you have in government to change society, to build new models of ownership.”
To understand just how radical Labour is under Corbyn, you have to appreciate the political background of the people he has elevated to the senior echelons of the party. Most of them took part in that Socialist Campaign Group rally, an event that once attracted only fringe members of a party that governed from the mainstream for a decade under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Long-Bailey, the shadow secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, was followed on stage by a succession of speakers who implored the “comrades” in a huge tent to seize the chance to eject Johnson from office amid the crisis of Brexit, which analysts believe has already cost the British economy billions of dollars before it is even implemented.
The headline act was John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who will be in charge of economic policy in a Labour government. “Capitalism goes through a regular cycle of crisis, it is crisis-riven,” he said. “You don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that—although it does help."
McDonnell argued that Johnson was exploiting the anger of the working class through populist messages and attacks on British institutions. “It's not unusual, it’s happened time and time again that a right-wing populist portrays themselves as somehow anti-establishment,” he said.
Labour’s policy pledges already passed at conference include a four-day working week, a state-owned drug manufacturer, seizure of private school assets, and the nationalization of utilities. They will also be planning a raft of new measures which they hope will catch the eye in the coming weeks in the same way that a leaked copy of 2017’s radical plans helped to turn around the election campaign two years ago.
“We will now launch the most ambitious and radical campaign for real change that our country has ever seen,” Corbyn said.
Both sides know that shifting the debate onto their home turf could be enough to grab the keys to Downing Street by Christmas. Both are willing to employ increasingly radical and populist messages to make sure their own cri de coeur is shrill enough to break through to the average voter. That leaves us facing the most acrimonious election in living memory.