British voters are sick of talking about Brexit

Weary British voters are not even sure what the issues are anymore.

Credit: UK Parliament

On December 12 Britain will see its third general election in four years. The campaign, which began just over a month ago, did not see any high points. It has, however, had several low points.

For Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party, one low point was when BBC interviewer Andrew Neil asked him whether he agreed that “Rothschild’s Zionists run Israel and world government,” a statement that a member of his own party had made, was an antisemitic statement. Neil had to ask the question three times before Corbyn finally agreed, grudgingly, that the statement was antisemitic; in his first to attempts at answering Neil’s question, Corbyn only said it should not be used.

For the Conservative incumbent Boris Johnson, a low point was probably reading an interview in the prestigious Times newspaper with Jennifer Arcuri, his alleged mistress, in which she merrily describes visiting his family home before he was officially divorced from his wife. Johnson was later asked about Arcuri’s allegations but avoided addressing the questions, just as he avoided related questions about the number of affairs he has had, and the number of children he has fathered out of wedlock (is it five? Six? More? We do not know.)

The BBC has also seen its fair share of low points in its election coverage. The most notorious incident involved the national broadcaster’s selective editing of a clip from a TV debate (more on those later) for its news bulletin.

In the original, an audience member asked Johnson: “How important is it for someone in your position of power to always tell the truth?” The question was followed by laughter and clapping from other members of the audience, as the Prime Minister was beginning to answer. In the bulletin segment, the laughs and claps were gone. The BBC explained in statement that they had shortened the clip for time reasons, but the damage was already done.

In fact, “the damage was already done” feels like a running theme in Britain at the moment.

The Labour party can try all it wants to convince Jewish voters that it has got the antisemitism problem among its ranks under control; yet, fewer than 10 percent of Jewish voters are currently considering voting for the party — down from about 50 percent in previous elections.

The Conservative party can go on and on and on about how it doesn’t plan to sell off the National Health Service, or stop it from being free at the point of use; yet, only 18 percent of people trust them to keep it publicly funded and publicly run.

The Liberal Democrats, centrist and pro-Europe (anti-Brexit) are also struggling with their recent past. Jo Swinson, their new, young, female leader was predicted to bring the party up in the polls, but the Lib-Dems joined a governing coalition led by the Conservatives in 2015 and this perceived betrayal is still fresh in the minds of left-leaning voters.

It did not have to be like this, for any of the parties; initially, this election was meant to be about Brexit, and Brexit only.  Boris Johnson called it, in an attempt to regain the majority the previous party leader, Theresa May, lost — back when she was trying to win a bigger majority in order to get Brexit done.

Sadly for May, the election became about everything else — Corbynmania, her party’s disastrously unpopular social welfare policy — and it marked the beginning of her long, painful downfall.

Will Johnson suffer the same fate as May? Few analysts dare make a prediction, given the notorious inaccuracy of pre-election polls, but the mop-haired incumbent prime minister is certainly going through an election that feels very similar to the one that ended May’s political career. While the Conservatives want to focus on Labour’s supposedly confusing Brexit plans, which is based on  negotiating a softer exit deal with Brussels rather than calling a second referendum — the issue itself has largely disappeared.

Like a ghost in a mansion struggling to scare off its living inhabitants, the UK’s imminent departure from the EU crops up every few days, for a few hours, then disappears again.

Though nearly half the country says it still supports Remain, only a fraction of those voters have turned to the Liberal Democrats, the one party offering not a second referendum, but a straightforward reversal of Article 50 — i.e., canceling the referendum results and remaining in the EU. Nigel Farage and his Brexit party were initially a major threat to the Conservatives and high up in the polls, but as December 12 approaches, it languishes at 3 percent.

In a way, this shouldn’t be a surprise. The United Kingdom is split on Brexit in a way that now feels ingrained; more than a preference on the future of the country, where you stand on Brexit is now a tribal identity in itself.

It is also worth mentioning that Brexit has been going on for years, and has defeated many deadlines; the UK was going to leave in March until it didn’t, and then in October — before it was delayed again. Deciding to center an election around something voters are utterly sick of hearing about — no matter where they stand on the issue — was always going to be tricky.

Instead of arguing about Europe again and again, the public seems to yearn for conversations about, well, everything else: falling living standards, the poor quality of public services, the lack of adequate public transport in the north, unaffordable house prices in cities, and so on. Sadly, it is not clear that the main parties are offering something that quite fits this national mood.

On the one hand, Johnson and his ilk have offered a rail-thin manifesto, built on Brexit, a tough stance on crime, a promise to fix potholes and not much else. On the other, Corbyn’s Labour is offering too much: the party says it wants to renationalize industries and overhaul the health and education system, among countless other major reforms in countless other areas.

Labour’s proposals would seem ambitious in any other context, but in late, grey, cold 2019, they feel slightly out of step with the general mood. The party hasn’t captured the minds of enough voters to win a majority in this election.

In fact, it looks as though once again, no one will walk into Downing Street on December 13 with a pounding majority. Pollsters continue to remind the public that their work amounts to snapshots instead of predictions, but current figures point towards another hung Parliament, or a wafer-thin majority.

Given that Brexit has so far failed to get anywhere because no deal could get through a House of Commons that does not have a proper majority for any side, or at least any one plan, this would mean going back to square one.

So what will this election be remembered for, if it does not get the country out of its Groundhog Day dystopia? Perhaps its low points will be what defines it, in the end.

After all, there have been many of them. There was Boris Johnson reneging on a promise to sit for an interview the BBC’s prominent political journalist Andrew Neil despite having agreed in principle and having let Corbyn go first. There was the Tory social media team changing its Twitter handle to @FactCheckUK and pretending to be a fact-checking outlet during the leaders’ debate, and crowning Johnson winner of the head-to-head. In fact, most of the low points so far have come from Boris Johnson or his party, but no matter how low they go, they remain the ones higher in the polls.

Perhaps this will be the disappointment election after all. The Conservatives, having backed Boris over the summer because he promised he could lead them to victory, not getting anywhere near the landslide they were hoping for. Labour, high on Corbyn’s unexpected success in 2017, emerging bitterly as the opposition party for the fourth election in a row. The Liberal Democrats, having decided to set aside all their other ideas to fight Brexit, failing to get anywhere or even beginning to turn the Europe debate around.

The defining moment of the 2017 election was Theresa May at her manifesto launch, being asked about her campaign falling apart and awkwardly repeating “nothing has changed! nothing has changed!” with her long thin arms stuck in a near-comical shrug. Everything had changed, of course, which is what made the quote so poignant.

After some weeks of triumphant Conservative campaigning and Labour officials fearing complete wipe-out because of dire polls, the tide suddenly turned on May. The Tory operation was focusing on her and she was not very good, interacting awkwardly with journalists and members of the public alike.

Her manifesto, planned to put Tory tanks firmly on Labour’s lawns, was instead received like a cup of tepid tea by the very voters she was trying to turn. Slowly, Labour started doing better and better, until it left May with no majority at all. Looking back, it does feel like it started at that press conference, where she unexpectedly floundered.

We are yet to have such a moment this time around, but as things stand: nothing has changed, but everything is worse.

 

Marie Le Conte

Marie Le Conte

Marie Le Conte is a French-Moroccan freelance political journalist based in London. She has worked for BuzzFeed News and the Evening Standard among others, and has written for publications including the Guardian, the Sunday Times, Prospect, VICE and i-D Magazine. Her book, Haven't You Heard? Gossip, Power And How Politics Really Works, is coming out on September 5.