LONDON (Reuters) – Britain on Tuesday was heading towards its first December election in almost a century after Prime Minister Boris Johnson won preliminary approval from parliament for an early ballot aimed at breaking the Brexit deadlock.
As the European Union granted a third delay to the divorce that was originally supposed to take place on March 29, the United Kingdom, its parliament and its electorate remain divided on how, or indeed whether, to go ahead with Brexit.
Johnson, who had promised to deliver Brexit on Oct. 31 “do or die”, demanded an election after parliament – where he has no majority – frustrated his attempts to ratify the last-minute divorce deal he struck with the EU earlier this month.
His bill calling for a Dec. 12 election was approved without a vote at its second reading on Tuesday, suggesting it has overwhelming support as it heads towards its final stage in parliament.
Lawmakers will vote at 1945 GMT Tuesday evening on an amendment to the bill that seeks to change the election date to Dec. 9, followed by a so-called third reading vote later before the bill goes to the House of Lords.
Johnson said the House of Commons was obstructing Brexit and thus damaging the economy by preventing investment decisions, and corroding faith in democracy.
“There is only one way to get Brexit done in the face of this unrelenting parliamentary obstructionism – this endless wilful fingers-crossed ‘not me Guv’ refusal to deliver on the mandate of the people – and that is, Mr Speaker, to refresh this parliament and give the people a choice,” Johnson said.
The first Christmas election in Britain since 1923 would be highly unpredictable: Brexit has variously fatigued and enraged swathes of voters while eroding traditional loyalties to the two major parties, Conservative and Labour.
Some politicians feel an election so close to Christmas could irritate voters, while campaigning and getting the vote out could be hampered by cold winter weather and darkness setting in by mid-afternoon.
Ultimately, voters would have a choice between an emboldened Johnson pushing for his Brexit deal or a socialist government under Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn renegotiating the deal before another referendum.
If no party wins conclusively, the Brexit deadlock would continue.
After four years of arguing over Brexit, almost all British politicians now agree an election is needed to break the cycle of inaction that has shocked allies of a country once considered a bastion of stable Western capitalism and democracy.
An election, though, could decide the fate of Brexit as well as the main players – Johnson, 55, and his rival Corbyn, 70.
When Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, bet on an early election in 2017, she lost her slender majority – a failure that ultimately prevented her from ratifying her Brexit deal in parliament and sank her political career.
Johnson’s Conservatives are ahead of Labour by an average of about 10 percentage points in polls this month, though pollsters underestimated the support for Brexit in 2016 and admit that the models they use are wilting beside the Brexit furnace.
The hard-line Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage will seek to poach Brexit voters from the two main parties while the Liberal Democrats will seek to win over opponents of Brexit.
“This will probably be the most unpredictable election I have ever known,” Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe, told Reuters.
“Is it Brexit or is it not? We don’t know. Second, the election is as volatile as ever and, thirdly, the potential for tactical voting – and tactical voting to go wrong – is very high given the Leave-Remain split,” he said.
VOTES ON VOTES
Lawmakers on Tuesday approved the timetable for Johnson’s “Early Parliamentary General Election Bill” without a formal vote and then waved it through in the second reading.
Labour swung behind an election. “I’m ready for it, we’re ready for it,” Corbyn told parliament.
The House of Commons will not vote on opposition proposals to allow EU citizens to take part in elections or to lower the voting age to 16. Johnson had warned he would cancel plans for an election if parliament voted for such changes.
As Johnson moved closer to an election than he has ever been in his tumultuous three-month premiership, the EU granted a Brexit delay to Jan. 31 but warned it might be the last.
“The EU27 has formally adopted the extension. It may be the last one. Please make the best use of this time,” outgoing European Union Chairman Donald Tusk said on Twitter.
Among voters, there was some relief that the Brexit debate might be ending soon.
“We’ve just got to bring this to some sort of resolution,” commuter Matt Finch, 36, said outside London’s Charing Cross rail station on Tuesday. “We’ve had many votes in the last 12 months in parliament and I think a general election might be a way to sort it all out.”
Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, Paul Sandle, Helena Williams, Andrew MacAskill and Kate Holton in London and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Mark Heinrich, David Clarke and Dan Grebler