LONDON — There are no good options on offer in the U.K.'s most ghastly of winter elections.
In the blue corner: a Conservative Party stuffed with Union Jack-waving hard Brexiteers led by a mendacious showman who promises a break from Britain’s biggest trading partner followed by a “best in class” comprehensive free-trade deal with the EU, all within the next 12 months. If you believe that, there’s a bridge he wants to sell you in Brooklyn.
In the red corner: the most left-wing Labour Party since the 1980s, led by an anti-Western, Euroskeptic curmudgeon who promises a renegotiation of the EU Withdrawal Agreement within three months, followed by a second referendum within six months “to get Brexit sorted,” but refuses to say which way he would vote. He, too, is peddling snake oil.
In the yellow corner: the Liberal Democrats, a serial loser centrist party that says it will revoke Brexit in the highly improbable event that it wins an absolute majority, but has no satisfactory answer to the democratic wishes of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU. Moreover, it appears to have ruled out forming a parliamentary pact with either major party in the event of a hung parliament, raising the specter of yet another general election.
Perhaps fortunately, my country of birth has spared me this odious choice by taking away my right to vote for the sin of having been resident for more than 15 years on the other side of the Channel. Brits abroad are not treated as full citizens after that period, so I wasn’t able to vote in the 2016 referendum on EU membership because I lived in continental Europe.
That doesn’t stop me wondering how I might cast my vote in this election from hell: How should a believer in pluralistic liberal democracy choose between Islamophobic dog-whistles and ill-suppressed anti-Semitism, between a soulmate of Donald Trump and an admirer of Nicolas Maduro?
What is the least-worst option between Boris Johnson’s bombastic false certainties about Britain’s rosy future outside the EU and Jeremy Corbyn’s deceptive claim to be able to negotiate a better deal, keeping the U.K. closer to the EU while restricting freedom of movement for workers from Europe?
Both are promising outcomes they know they cannot deliver. As a voter, your only hope is that each is lying and doesn’t intend to implement these electoral promises, which doesn’t exactly buttress faith in democracy.
Even more than in past British elections, what you see is not necessarily what you get.
If you vote Labour, you can’t know for sure whether you will get a swath of nationalizations, an avalanche of public spending, a cascade of tax increases, or a minority government sustained in office by smaller parties that will prevent some or all of the above. You also don’t know if you will get another referendum on Scottish independence to buy the support of Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party, and if so, when.
If you vote Liberal Democrat, you don’t know whether you will be voting to stay in the EU, or to support a minority Labour administration renegotiating a softer Withdrawal Agreement in the hope that you will then be able to vote against Brexit at a second referendum. Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has said she won’t do a deal to put Corbyn in Downing Street in the event of a hung parliament, so you may just be voting for yet another general election.
If you vote Tory and they win an outright majority, you do at least have certainty that the divorce deal negotiated by Johnson will be implemented and the U.K. will leave the EU on January 31, with a de facto regulatory border down the Irish Sea. But it’s a delusion to think that this will "get Brexit done," in the words of the latest lie to be plastered on the side of a campaign bus.
To paraphrase Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It would only be the end of the beginning. Or as former Labour Europe Minister Denis MacShane puts it, the beginning of "Brexiternity."
Britons would awake with a hangover on February 1 to a future shrouded in a fog of lies and wishful thinking. You don’t have to be Ivan Rogers, Britain’s forensic former ambassador to the EU, to know that a comprehensive free-trade agreement without tariffs or quotas, giving market access for services that make up 80 percent of the British economy, cannot possibly be put in place within the 11 months before the transition period expires. It took seven years to negotiate and ratify a less ambitious EU deal with Canada, which barely touches services.
As Rogers wisely cautions, the worst is yet to come.
Yet Johnson has sworn rashly there will be no extension of the December 31, 2020 deadline for the end of the transition. This was one of many sops to the minority of swivel-eyed hard Brexiteers who have dictated the terms of negotiations ever since the referendum by threatening to blow the Tory Party apart if they don’t get their way.
It’s the same kind of cornered bluffer’s mistake that Theresa May (remember her?) made when she gave notice to leave under Article 50 of the EU treaty before working out what kind of a divorce deal and future relationship with the EU she wanted. It hands all the negotiating leverage to Brussels.
Desperate to prevent Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party siphoning off millions of Conservative votes with the promise of an even harder “real Brexit,” and in the process handing the election to Corbyn, the prime minister is setting the country up for another potential cliff-edge crashout at the end of next year. It would make more sense to avail himself of the option of an extension of up to two years. That would at least allow time for an orderly and more comprehensive negotiation of the future relationship.
With any luck, Johnson is lying — again — and will perform a U-turn once the bunting is cleared away from what will undoubtedly be a tub-thumping Independence Day celebration redolent of imperial nostalgia and a pastiche of a royal jubilee.
Perhaps the choice comes down to which option will do the least harm to the British economy, and hence to the revenue needed to fund any of the parties’ exorbitant promises on health care, infrastructure and social spending. Disaster delayed is not disaster averted, but it’s better than disaster now.
We must just hope Boris won’t risk an economic crash by sticking to his “no extension” mantra.