It’s the Brexit election that never was.
When she called Britain’s surprise election, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May justified the snap poll as “the only way to guarantee the certainty and stability for the years ahead” — the “strong and stable” mandate she needed to take Britain into an uncertain period that would see it renegotiate its relationship not just with the EU but with the rest of the world.
Instead, the campaign that followed delivered little certainty and plenty of unanswered questions, many of which will remain unresolved whomever voters back as they go to polls Thursday.
The key choices and trade-offs looming with upcoming Brexit negotiations were barely mentioned. A radical, but previously no-hope Labour leader surged in the polls with a promise to overturn the economic orthodoxy of post-2008 crash Britain. In the campaign’s closing days, Britain’s vulnerability to home-grown terrorism shook nerves and overshadowed debate.
The campaign also exposed a country at odds with itself, doubtful of its place in the world and unhappy at home. Far from the jubilant, unifying coronation May might have hoped for, the vote will be held in an atmosphere of gloom and uncertainty not seen in the U.K. perhaps since the 1970s, when the country was — ironically — the sick man of Europe.
Two very different candidates
Part of that uncertainty, of course, comes from the stark choice Britain faces between two very different possible prime ministers.
While May remains the odds-on favorite to win a comfortable majority, her Labour challenger Jeremy Corbyn has far exceeded expectations as a campaigner and has increased Labour’s performance in the polls dramatically in the seven short weeks of the campaign. As polling day dawns, he still has a slim but feasible chance of winning enough seats to deprive the Conservatives of an overall majority. In that scenario, a minority Labour government would be forced to rule with issue-by-issue support from smaller parties.
On the final day of campaigning, the two leaders’ striking differences — in style and substance — were on clear display.
May visited a placid bowling green in the port city of Southampton in the morning, before flying by chartered plane to Norwich in the east of England to attend a staged event with Conservative activists.
It’s a city where the defeat of Labour rising star Clive Lewis — one of the early supporters of Project Corbyn — would signal a landslide for the Conservatives. The absence of a UKIP candidate puts the Conservatives in play.
May’s small rally was held in a hall normally used by the evangelical Christian Proclaimers Church, on an industrial estate on the outskirts of town. Watched by husband Philip, May delivered her message for “the remaining hours.”
Later, she was back on the move for a final rally with her full cabinet — many of whom surely wondering whether they will still have a job next week — in Birmingham.
Corbyn, meanwhile, made his way by train (standard class) from Glasgow in Scotland, to Runcorn in northwest England, then on to Colwyn Bay in North Wales, to Watford and finally back to London — at every stop addressing packed crowds, as has become his trademark.
His appearance on the seaside promenade at Colwyn Bay had an air of borderline Beatlemania. Local children were given permission to skip school to go and see him; a toddler perched on his dad’s shoulders burbled: “Go Jeremy Corbyn!”
The Labour’s leader’s every campaign promise was greeted with hearty cheers from the crowd who chanted his name as if he were a soccer legend, to the tune of the riff from White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”
Corbyn’s Labour surge has confounded pundits. Gareth Thomas, the Labour candidate for Colwyn Bay’s parliamentary seat, Clwyd West, was last an MP under Tony Blair. In 2005, he was deposed by Conservative David Jones, who is now a Brexit minister in May’s government. He hopes to overturn Jones’ majority of 6,730 and take the seat back.
Under Corbyn, Labour has picked up support from ex-UKIP voters, from Lib Dems, from Welsh nationalists, he said.
This region backed Leave in the EU referendum, and many Brexiteers voted on a wave of anti-politics feeling, exacerbated by stagnant wages and falling living standards, as public sector cuts and pay freezes brought on by seven years of Tory austerity began to bite. May has called these people those “left behind” and “just-about-managing,” and has sought to win them over.
However, Thomas said “there are many in the ‘left behind’ category here and Corbyn appeals. He is picking up the protest vote.”
Corbyn ended the day at a huge rally in his Islington constituency in north London — the 90th such event of his campaign. Supporters crowded the streets outside, while inside the venue, under the domed roof of Union Chapel, Corbyn declared his movement “the new center-ground politics” and joked that he didn’t have a helicopter. “We had a train ticket.”
Brexit is conspicuous by its absence on the doorstep, according to Thomas.
The biggest event to hit Britain since World War II has not been the campaign galvanizer many thought it would be. While May’s pitch has been that she is best placed to negotiate a good exit deal for Britain, the substance of what that deal will look like, and what it will mean for ordinary British people, has barely been up for debate.
“We’ve learnt nothing [about Brexit] because it suits Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn to say next to nothing about it,” said Charles Grant, director of the independent Centre for European Reform think tank.
“The political leaders have conspired to pull the wool over the eyes of the British people and avoid explaining that Brexit means painful choices.”
The reason, it would appear, is that neither is a hardened Brexiteer, and neither wants to tarnish their election pitch with difficult realities about the trade-offs that will be required in Britain’s settlement with the EU.
“On these issues there are trade-offs which can be summed up with the simple statement that if you want closer relations with the EU, which are economically beneficial, you have to trade in more sovereignty,” said Grant. “That’s the basic issue and May’s avoided levelling with the British people on that because there’s no good outcomes for her.”
“The tragedy is that the opposition have not made her talk about it, and the media have been pathetic.”
If May does win, economists are just as in the dark as the Brexitologists as to what kind of U.K. will emerge from this strange election.
Paul Johnson, director of the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank, said that May’s manifesto had not grappled with the fundamentals of the U.K.’s economy as it approaches a turbulent Brexit negotiation.
“It’s very difficult to say much about the Conservative manifesto because there’s so little in it, but there’s certainly nothing much in there which says we recognize that there have been eight or nine really pretty dire years, and there’s something significant we need to do in terms of investment, in terms of R&D, in terms of wages and productivity. There’s just not much in there at all,” he said.
“The Tory manifesto was extremely light on detail in terms of what they might do with taxes” — Paul Johnson, director of the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank
There was certainly no sign of the low-tax, pro-business, offshore, Singapore-style economy that many Brexiteers dream of.
“The Tory manifesto was extremely light on detail in terms of what they might do with taxes. Spending looked broadly the same, continuing with more intervention than is traditional for Conservatives, but nothing too dramatic,” he said.
“Either they’ve got some ideas they’re not telling us about or they haven’t got any ideas.”
La grande illusion
Labour, one the other hand, had one big idea.
An extra £75 billion a year of public spending — to pay for scrapping tuition fees, bailing out the National Health Service, and ending the public sector pay squeeze among other things — would be paid for, in part, by £50 billion raised in higher taxes on corporations and top earners. The plans would take tax in the U.K. to its highest level in peacetime, according to Johnson.
Just as Britain turns away from Europe, it appears that at least some are flirting with a more European welfare state than ever.
“It’s obviously a radical change from where the U.K. has been but is clearly economically feasible. The issue I have is that I think they are not being terribly wise about how they say they would pay for it,” Johnson said.
“Other countries don’t pay for all of that simply by having enormous taxes on corporations and the various things Labour is talking about. They tend to have higher social insurance contributions, for example, and other taxes paid by individuals.”
Not for nothing did former Treasury Permanent Secretary Nick Macpherson tweet wryly this week about the fundamental tameness of both parties’ economic vision for the future of Britain. Neither was facing up to the U.K.’s “grande illusion” he said — it’s a country that has “EU levels of spending financed from U.S. tax rates.”
One rare point of consensus in the campaign was both major parties’ concern about inequality in the U.K.
Solutions, however, were harder to find.
For Torsten Bell, director of the independent Resolution Foundation think tank, neither party has fully addressed the pain felt by those on at the lower end of of the income scale.
“Rhetorically both parties have shown they understand how serious this issue is, from Theresa May’s focus on the just-about-managing to Labour’s recognition that the next few years do not look rosy when it comes to working people’s living standards,” he said.
Throw in economic turbulence that many predict will accompany Brexit — high inflation, stagnant wages, soaring living costs — and the future looks pretty gloomy for these people who will feel the pain the most.
With neither party offering clarity on Brexit, the economy or inequality, there will be some in Britain wondering if the outcome of this election matters at all.