A polarized Britain votes in Brexit’s shadow
The British public trudges back to the polls today for the third general election in five years, with the country on the brink of its most radical transition since the end of World War II.
At such a deeply divided moment, it’s perhaps fitting that the leaders of Britain’s two main political parties are polar opposites:
Boris Johnson is a raffish, Eton-educated prime minister with quicksilver political instincts and a blunt-force campaign message, Mark Landler, our London bureau chief, writes. Mr. Johnson says he’s the man who will finally honor the results of the 2016 referendum in which a slight majority of the British people voted to leave the European Union.
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, is a veteran activist and proud socialist making a vastly different pitch, writes our London correspondent Stephen Castle. He promises to end nine years of Conservative-led austerity policies and to call a second referendum on Brexit, although he refuses to say which way he would vote.
Neither is especially popular. One will prevail anyway.
“Most people expect the Conservatives to win, but the question is whether they get a governing majority,” says Jim Yardley, our Europe editor. “If they do, it certainly seems like Remain is dead. The question we’ll sort out over the next year is what kind of Brexit we’ll have.”
How it works: If Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives come away with a majority of Parliament’s 650 seats, Britain will be on course to leave the E.U. on Jan. 31 and then begin trade talks with the bloc. But if neither party has a majority and Labour has more seats, Mr. Corbyn forms a minority government — and a second Brexit referendum would be on the cards.
And if the result falls short of either outcome, with, say, a stronger-than-expected showing by a smaller party? Things would get messy, and the country could crash out of the E.U. sans agreement.
The Conservative Party has made incessant vows to “get Brexit done” and bulldoze through three and a half years of political gridlock. Mr. Johnson maintains that Brexit would uncork a flood of pent-up investment, though government forecasts indicate that it will reduce growth.
The Labour Party, by contrast, has campaigned as the defender of Britain’s revered National Health Service. Mr. Corbyn notes that the system has deteriorated under the Conservatives’ watch, and argues that Mr. Johnson would further privatize it.
Both messages have broad appeal, but it’s complicated. Many voters believe that the results of the 2016 referendum must be respected, even if they now think it would be better for Britain to remain in the European Union. And while they broadly see the N.H.S. as sacred, not everyone trusts Mr. Corbyn to take care of it.
The result is a broad reassessment of traditional political loyalties. A key question is how many voters will defect to the Liberal Democrats, a centrist party running on a promise to keep Britain in the E.U.
Mr. Johnson, right, has a long reputation for mendacity. His campaign manifesto is brief and vague, and he has methodically avoided scrutiny from the news media.
But he has campaigned with discipline, and his wit and bravado give him broad appeal across social classes. Crucially, that may help him prevail in pockets of Northern England where voters typically support Labour but voted for Brexit.
Mr. Corbyn’s socialist message and his laid-back image — a grandfatherly figure who makes his own jam and rides a bicycle — tend to strike a chord with young people. Labour made substantial gains in 2017 thanks to a spike in the youth vote, and it hopes for a repeat performance today.
Yet Mr. Corbyn’s leadership has been marred by factionalism, and the grass-roots enthusiasm that fueled his rise appears to have waned. He is also dogged by persistent claims that he has tolerated anti-Semitism within Labour’s ranks — accusations that he denies but has sometimes refused to address.
What to know: The polls open at 7 a.m. local time and close at 10 p.m. The results of a usually reliable exit poll will be announced almost immediately afterward.
Media restrictions: Under British laws, broadcasters and online news media will largely avoid the election until polls close. (See our Back Story for more.)
Our plan: We have explainers on Brexit and how the voting process works. A live briefing will go up soon (staying within Britain’s customary restraints), and we’ll start breaking down the election results at nytimes.com as soon as polls close.
Here’s what else is happening
Europe’s climate policy: In Brussels today, the European Commission and some E.U. member states will try to convince skeptical neighbors — namely the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland — to ditch polluting industries. It’s part of a proposal to legally commit all E.U. nations to cutting emissions by at least 50 percent from 1990s levels by 2030.
France: After days of severe transport strikes, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said that a planned overhaul of the country’s generous pension system would not affect older workers. But he added that workers would be encouraged to stay on until 64 — the current retirement age is 62 — angering a moderate union whose support the government needs.
Snapshot: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader and a onetime icon of human rights and democracy, defended her country against genocide accusations at The Hague, a day after hearing testimony that implicated the Myanmar Army and associated mobs in horrors inflicted upon Rohingya Muslims.
In memoriam: Reinhard Bonnke, 79, a German-born Pentecostal faith-healer known as the “Billy Graham of Africa” for the revivals he held across that continent.
What we’re looking at: This interactive feature about the ocean’s depths by Neal Agarwal, a self-described “creative coder.” Michael Roston, a science editor, writes: “Just keep scrolling until you reach the bottom. Along the way you’ll learn a lot about our seas, and perhaps even feel a sense of calm.”
Now, a break from the news
Cook: Roasted salmon and brussels sprouts with jalapeño and a citrus soy sauce is simple but tastes fancy.
Watch: Glenda Jackson, a former member of Britain’s Parliament, returns to the screen after a 27-year hiatus to star in the BBC film “Elizabeth Is Missing.”
Smarter Living: Just because it’s easy to DM someone — direct message via social media — doesn’t necessarily make it wise. We can help you think it through.
And now for the Back Story on …
Britain’s media, muzzled for a day
In coverage of Britain’s divisive, hugely consequential election today, exit polls won’t be cited. There won’t be interviews with candidates or voters, or news shows debating the merits of the parties or the issues.
Only after the polls close at 10 p.m. local time will the floodgates open.
The muted coverage stems from British laws meant to keep broadcast coverage from influencing voters.
The laws emerged decades ago, at a time when TV and radio were very powerful, and before online journalism was a force. As licensed entities, broadcasters were required to act in the public interest, which was interpreted to include protecting voters from last-minute influences.
The BBC and other British news organizations tend to follow the same rules online, as do foreign news organizations operating within the country.
At 10 p.m., it’s back to normal.
That’s it for this briefing. See you next time, with election results.
To Mark Josephson and Eleanor Stanford for the break from the news. Andrea Kannapell, the Briefings editor, wrote today’s Back Story. You can reach the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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