LONDON – Britain, a nation of tea drinkers, is deciding on one of the most divisive and important issues it has faced in a generation or more: Which variety of tea bag does it want in its mug? “The Boris blend” or “Cuppa Corbyn”?
The tongue-in-cheek, special edition teas are available to order only until Thursday, as the country holds its fourth national vote in as many years, including 2016’s politically paralyzing referendum on European Union membership – Brexit.
Though polls indicate an uncertain outcome, if New York-born Boris Johnson’s incumbent Conservative Party retains power with a comfortable majority in Parliament, it will effectively clear a path for him to push through Britain’s EU departure Jan. 31. If Johnson loses, or doesn’t prevail with a large enough majority, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn may attempt to form a minority government by partnering with other opposition groups such as the Liberal Democrats, a party whose manifesto is dominated by one message: “Stop Brexit.”
An exit poll is due at 10 p.m. local time (5 p.m. ET). Full results are expected Friday.
A Corbyn win could lead to a new Brexit referendum, potentially prolonging Britain’s three-year divorce battle with its most important trading partner.
Under Britain’s centuries-old political system, the nation elects a party, not a leader, meaning the ruling party can make changes at the top.
Political scientists said Thursday’s vote is as significant as other momentous events in British political history: the 1945 vote that ushered in the first Labour Party majority government; the 1979 election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power and started the slow dismantling of Britain’s welfare state in favor of the privatization and deregulation more commonplace in the USA; and former prime minister Tony Blair’s 1997 election that put an end to 18 consecutive years of Conservative Party rule and swapped it for something that approximated U.S. President Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” policies – leadership more in tune with globalization.
Surveys show as many as one in five voters are undecided about whom to vote for, largely because of uncertainties and confusion surrounding the impact of Brexit on Britain’s economy and social welfare system, especially its taxpayer-funded National Health Service (NHS). Corbyn’s Labour Party has repeatedly raised the specter of Johnson agreeing to allow American pharmaceutical companies and medical contractors more direct access to the NHS in return for a post-Brexit trade deal with Washington.
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Britain’s political parties have stretched the limits of truth in ways that have made it difficult to separate fact from fantasy.
Last month, the Conservatives released a video aggressively edited to show a Labour spokesman unable to answer a question about the party’s position on Britain’s EU exit. It has been viewed more than a million times. During a leaders’ debate, the Conservative Party’s press office temporarily rebranded its Twitter account “factcheckUK” and used it to attack Corbyn’s comments.
A study by First Draft, a media watchdog, found nearly 90% of Facebook ads paid for by the Conservative Party in the first few days of December contained misleading claims. Over the period, the party created more than 6,000 ads.
Competing assertions about the NHS, an organization that’s been a point of pride for Britons since its inception after World War II as a service that is “free at the point of delivery,” have been particularly galling for voters such as Jim Hall, 28, a student in London. “The NHS is not something that should be politicized,” he said, noting that like many people he knows, he is underwhelmed by Johnson and Corbyn, finding the former untrustworthy and the latter politically ineffective.
“There are no circumstances in which this government or any Conservative government will put the NHS on the table in any trade negotiation,” Johnson said Friday during a televised debate with Corbyn, who claimed he had a large dossier of documents that amounted to “proof” that the NHS would be up “for sale” if Johnson emerges victorious.
Reddit, the social news aggregator, said Corbyn’s leaked papers were linked to a Russian disinformation campaign, a reminder that a media committee in Britain’s Parliament last year called for widespread changes to Britain’s electoral laws because voters were being inundated with deceptive social media messages.
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The report followed a lengthy investigation into fake news and misappropriation of data and digital assets by political campaigns. It was triggered by concerns about Russian interference in Western elections. The probe helped fuel a scandal about how consultancy Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data to target voters during Donald Trump’s 2016 run for the White House. Cambridge Analytica shut down its operations in 2018.
“We have seen the erosion of the standards we’re used to,” said Timothy Bale, a political scientist at Queen Mary University of London, “particularly with the Conservative Party playing fast and loose with the truth.”
Johnson has tried to downplay the at-times acerbic tone of his campaign with humor.
Asked in a British TV interview how he relaxes in the evening, Johnson, a former journalist who was once fired for making up a quote, said that he “does a few quadratic equations and reads Pre-Socratic philosophy.”
As the campaign wound down, Britain’s leader found himself in the firing line from the British press and political experts for an awkward exchange with a reporter who tried to show him a photo on his phone of a young sick child suffering at a hospital. Johnson repeatedly refused to look at the photo. Flustered, he snatched the phone away from the reporter and stuck it in his pocket before realizing what he had done and expressing sympathy for the child and his family.
The Conservative Party was also criticized by media watchdogs for falsely claiming that a Labour Party activist punched Johnson’s health secretary, Matthew Hancock. Hancock had been dispatched to the hospital where the sick child was being cared for after the photo went viral. The punch that never happened itself went viral.
When President Trump visited Britain last week for NATO meetings, he said he could “work with anybody” who occupies No. 10 Downing St., the prime minister’s office and residence, but Johnson and Corbyn offer radically different visions for Britain.
In addition to getting “Brexit done” – his signature campaign promise – Johnson, 55, would seek to cut taxes and red tape to stimulate economic growth while opening Britain’s coffers to spend more on policing. health and ambitious infrastructure development projects.
Johnson gets on well with Trump, not least because both men have populist instincts and Trump has openly supported Brexit. In an echo of Trump’s divisive comments about immigration, Johnson said Monday that EU migrants have for too long been able to “treat the UK as if it’s part of their own country.”
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Corbyn, 70, would raise taxes, attempt to nationalize some infrastructure, such as railways and utilities, and offer free internet access. A lifelong left-wing activist who has sympathized with revolutionary movements from Cuba to Iran and vowed to unwind the sharp end of Britain’s capitalist system, Corbyn would expand Britain’s government and social programs.
Corbyn could be an awkward fit for Trump, whom he has repeatedly criticized and accused of trying to interfere in Britain’s election.
“It is very clear to me that a trade deal with the United States would put all of our public services at risk, into the hands of global corporations, and they would open up what they gently call our health market,” Corbyn said during a Labour campaign rally.
“Well, I have got news for them. There is no health market. We shut that down in 1948 when we established the National Health Service,” he said.
Whoever wins Thursday, it’s not the end of Brexit.
The country remains bitterly divided over its relationship with the EU, and even if Johnson succeeds in formally dragging Britain out of the alliance Jan. 31, it will be just the start of a deeper separation process of negotiations over trade, borders, agriculture, security and more that are likely to last several years.
“Britain’s nightmare before Christmas: A divided country faces an election that will tear it still further apart,” The Economist said in its election endorsement editorial published last week. The magazine reluctantly backed the Liberal Democrats. “British voters keep being called to the polls – and each time the options before them are worse,” it said.
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