It's been called the most important election in a generation. When the U.K. votes Thursday for a new government, it will be deciding the country’s fate for decades to come.
While topics like the National Health Service, climate change, and austerity have been discussed during this election, it is Brexit that dominates the vote. Three years after the country voted to leave the EU, voters will once again be asked to define its relationship with Europe.
If Boris Johnson is voted back in as prime minister with a majority, the U.K. will likely leave the EU by January. A Labour-led government with Jeremy Corbyn in charge will see the process delayed, and possibly canceled completely.
The choice the people of the U.K. make on Dec. 12 will have repercussions for years to come.
"The answer that they give to that question will have a huge impact on Britain's position politically and indeed economically for the next 10 to 15 years,” Robert Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, told VICE News. “The answer that we get tomorrow will set the course of British politics for a decade or more because it will determine the Brexit outcome and that in turn will determine much else that we do politically.”
Here’s what you need to know about Thursday’s vote.
How did we get here?
The U.K. voted to leave the EU in June 2016, and since then, the country has been in political turmoil. First, Theresa May replaced David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister. Then she decided to hold a snap election in 2017 to give her a larger majority to push through a Brexit deal.
Unfortunately for May, she lost her majority, but she clung to power thanks to a deal with the ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party. Despite the deal, May was unable to get her Brexit deal through Parliament, thanks to a group of extreme Brexiteers within her own party.
May resigned and was replaced by Boris Johnson, a leading figure in the 2016 Leave campaign, who promised as PM that he'd get Brexit done before the Oct. 31, 2019, deadline. But thanks to the quirks of a law called the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, Johnson was forced to extend the Brexit deadline before he could call an election.
Who are the main players?
- Boris Johnson: The current prime minister has proved a highly polarizing figure who's promising to “get Brexit done” and “unleash the potential of the whole UK.” Johnson’s history of Islamophobic, racist, and misogynistic comments has been highlighted by his opponents during the campaign, and he has repeatedly been met on the campaign trail by voters who tell him to leave their town or refuse to talk to him. But for all the mistrust of Johnson, he remains the favorite to be the next U.K. prime minister.
- Jeremy Corbyn: The Labour leader is an equally divisive figure, even within his own party. He's been criticized for not doing enough to eradicate anti-Semitism from the party, and his links to terrorist groups have once again been dredged up during this campaign. But Corbyn is promising a radical shift in how the U.K. is run, with the party’s manifesto promising free university tuition, increases in health care spending, raised taxes on the rich, and the nationalization of some industries including railways and internet broadband.
- Jo Swinson: The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Swinson was at one point seen as a critical figure in the formation of any new government when an early poll showed the Lib Dems beating both Labour and the Conservatives, but a poorly run campaign and a lack of real leadership have seen the party’s poll numbers drop significantly.
- Nigel Farage: Possibly the most polarizing politician of his generation, Farage’s newly formed political party, the Brexit Party, is campaigning on that single issue. Thanks to a deal with Johnson, they are only running candidates in areas where they won’t siphon votes away from the conservatives. But the campaign has been a disaster with candidates defecting to the Tories and Farage speaking to half-empty halls. If the polls are accurate, support for the Brexit Party is flatlining at about 3 percent. Farage himself has failed to be elected to Parliament on seven different occasions, and he's not running this time around.
What are the issues?
- Brexit: The topic that has dominated British politics for almost four years is central to this election. The Tories say they'll leave the EU by the January deadline and renegotiate a trade deal with the EU and U.S. by the end of 2020. Labour, on the other hand, says it will renegotiate the deal with the EU and then put that deal to a second referendum, asking voters if they want to leave the EU with the new deal or to remain in the EU. The Liberal Democrats have said they will scrap Brexit altogether — but that is dependent on Swinson becoming prime minister, and there is no chance of that happening.
- NHS: The National Health Service has become a key issue in this election, as concern grows that it could be sold off as part of a trade deal with the U.S. Labour has campaigned to keep the NHS in public hands, claiming it is “in crisis and on the brink” and pledging a “relentless focus” on the health service. Johnson has said the NHS is not for sale, despite leaked documents claiming to show it was discussed as part of trade talks with the U.S. earlier this year. During a visit to London last week, Trump was asked about U.S. companies buying up parts of the NHS during last week’s visit to London, and said: “If you handed it to us on a silver platter, we’d want nothing to do with it.”
- Climate Change: The huge threat posed to the world by climate change was meant to be a pivotal topic during this election. All parties pledged huge amounts of money to tackle the problem of climate change. Labour promised £250 billion ($330 billion); the Liberal Democrats £100 billion ($130 billion); and the Greens £1 trillion ($1.3 trillion). There was even a televised leaders debate dedicated to climate change where Boris Johnson was replaced by an ice sculpture when he didn’t show up for that debate.
So, what’s likely to happen?
According to the latest constituency-by-constituency poll from YouGov, the Conservatives are on course to win a narrow majority, but that gap is closing, and the possibility of a hung Parliament looms over Thursday’s vote.
According to the YouGov poll, the Conservatives’ position remained unchanged from a similar poll two weeks ago, at 43 percent, while Labour is up two points at 34 percent.
While it may not seem a huge change, the poll suggests that thanks to the U.K.’s first-past-the-post voting system, Johnson’s majority in Parliament has dropped from a potential 68 to just 20.
The poll suggests the Tories will win 339 seats, Labour 231, the Scottish National party 41, and the Liberal Democrats 15.
“The margins are extremely tight and small swings in a small number of seats, perhaps from tactical voting and a continuation of Labour’s recent upward trend, means we can’t currently rule out a hung Parliament,” Chris Curtis, YouGov’s political research manager, told the Metro.
A hung Parliament in which no one has an overall majority means negotiations will begin in earnest with the smaller parties, including the Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and the DUP.
For Corbyn to come to power, Labour would need to do a deal with the Scottish National Party — which would want a guarantee of a second referendum on Scottish independence — and the Lib Dems, many of whom are not happy with Corbyn as leader.
Such a coalition may not last very long, so we could be back to Square One very soon.
"If we did get a Labour-led coalition, unless the SNP could provide the votes to deliver a majority, that coalition probably wouldn't last much longer than the time it took to organize and hold a second referendum, so it might end up with another general election within two years,” Ford said.
Cover: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares a pie at the Red Olive catering company while on the campaign trail, in Derby, England, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019 Britain goes to the polls on Dec. 12. (Ben Stansall/Pool Photo via AP)