Toxic election

What gods have the good people of United Kingdom offended to face a choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn as their prime minister? I have seen my friends and acquaintances agonize over their choices, especially where the winner of the seat is going to be either the Conservative or Labour candidate. I am fortunate in not being a citizen, so I do not have to make that decision, and instead observe from some distance, unless of course Priti Patel wants to kick me out of the country for being a foreigner. For many, it is not about whom to vote for, but whom to vote against. In that respect, it has been an election dominated by fear and negativity. My observations and impressions, necessarily anecdotal and mediated by media outlets, are that both candidates are deeply unpopular, though the degree of antipathy and animosity is stronger towards Mr Corbyn. It has been a toxicity contest.

Even though the UK is a parliamentary system based on political parties where the candidate with the most votes in the single-member constituency is returned to parliament rather than a directly-elected presidential one, and despite their unpopularity, this election has focused on the personalities of the party leaders, and narratives have been built around a (false) binary choice. After all, other parties are available. Given how turbulent UK politics has been for the past few years, perhaps someone else other than Mr Johnson or Mr Corbyn will emerge as the eventual prime minister. I would not be surprised: the recent times have been so strange.

All analogies, especially historical and political analogies, are bound to fail. Yet, perhaps the UK is experiencing the choice France managed to avoid in 2017: given how tight the first round was in that presidential election, with small percentage differences on the day, the second-round contest could well have been a choice between Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. I am not sure whom this comparison is unfairest.

As of today, a day before the polling day, a Conservative plurality looks almost certain, and a Conservative majority quite likely, but whatever the outcome which might spring a surprise on us all, it is doubtful that the next government could survive for long. Even if there is a reasonably comfortable majority for the Conservatives and the government manages to pass the withdrawal agreement to ‘get Brexit done’ to use their parlance, the Brexit coalition will likely fall apart very soon after the UK leaves the European Union, as there are competing opinions as to the nature of future relationship. An uncomfortable, i.e. small, Conservative majority makes the government vulnerable to factions within the party, and may be torpedoed by those who believe in a form of Brexit other than the withdrawal agreement. Will the Democratic Unionist Party prop up such a government, and if so at what price, both in money and Brexit terms? In this situation, the same dynamic applies to Mr Johnson as had applied to his predecessor, Theresa May, namely that he will only be able to change course for a softer Brexit with a large majority, but he will be a prisoner of the Brexit hardliners with a small majority.

It remains unclear what happens if there is an anti-Conservative majority but a Conservative plurality in parliament. Based on the opinion polls, Labour on its own will not be able to form a government. In such instance, and if Mr Corbyn is to become the next prime minister, then he will require support from other parties. Whatever the form of support, it is unlikely that such would extend beyond putting a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU into motion. The Labour position of negotiating a different Brexit deal from what is currently available and for its leader to remain neutral on its referendum is unlikely to be credible or convincing for many people. This situation makes things uncomfortable for other parties, since supporting Mr Corbyn actively is a risky proposition, as such could alienate a lot of their supporters.

Whatever the result, and whatever the course of the Brexit process, the UK as a country and society will remain deeply divided for the foreseeable future. As this election has been much about preventing someone from being in power, active or positive support for the eventual policy will be limited. The victor in this contest will claim to have a strong mandate for their political programmes, but may end up pursuing policies that will further erode trust and legitimacy in government and policymaking. The elastic constitution of the UK has been streteched to its limits in trying to deal with Brexit, and constitutional and electoral reforms may be required as a matter of agency.

We will have a better picture in the early hours of Friday, 13 December, and it is going to be an unlucky day for many.