October 30, 2019 / 11:19 AM / 7 months ago

Breakingviews - Brexit election is answer to the wrong question

An anti-Brexit protester waves an EU flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, October 25, 2019.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - A general election is the answer. That’s what Britain’s deadlocked parliament concluded on Tuesday evening when it decided to call a national ballot in December. Less clear is the question voters are supposed to be answering. Politicians hoping for direction on Brexit may once again be confounded.

At least Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a clear objective for the country’s third parliamentary election in less than five years. “It’s time to unite the country and get Brexit done,” he told lawmakers. The former London mayor concluded it was better to seek a popular mandate than try to push his deal to leave the European Union through parliament without a majority. Opinion polls suggest he is right: Johnson’s Conservative party is consistently about 10 percentage points ahead of the rival Labour party.

Even so, the decision remains a giant gamble. Johnson repeatedly promised that Britain would leave the EU on Oct. 31. His failure to deliver on that unrealistic pledge will help political rivals, particularly the hard-line Brexit party.

The decision to again extend Britain’s membership of the EU to January 2020 will embolden voters who still hope to reverse the 2016 referendum decision. Polls tracked by the website Britain Elects show a small but persistent majority would now choose to remain in the bloc. And voters have become more unpredictable. Almost half the electorate changed parties in the three general elections between 2010 and 2017, according to the British Election study.

Yet converting broad support for the EU into a parliamentary majority is tricky, especially in an electoral system that historically favours two large parties. Voters will also be swayed by traditional issues like taxes, healthcare, crime and education. And even if pro-EU parties like the Liberal Democrats do well, Britain would almost certainly need another referendum to overturn the result of the last one.

If Johnson wins a majority, his Brexit headache will be far from over. The prime minister will immediately face a contentious decision about whether to extend the post-Brexit transition period, which ends in 2020, or risk breaking ties with the EU before agreeing a new trade deal.

Alternatively, Britain could wake up on Dec. 13 to another fractured parliament and a new deadline looming in seven weeks. In 2017, former Prime Minister Theresa May asked for a Brexit mandate only to lose her majority. The risk is that divided voters once again deliver an inconclusive result, leaving Britain stuck in limbo.


Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.

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