Britain's parties launch election campaign with promises to resolve Brexit dispute

VIDEO: REUTERS
A gruelling and ill-tempered electoral campaign offered no fresh ideas on how Britain can emerge from the current Brexit morass.
A gruelling and ill-tempered electoral campaign offered no fresh ideas on how Britain can emerge from the current Brexit morass.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON - Britain's major parties have launched their electoral campaigns in the run-up to the general election scheduled for Dec 12 by vying with one another in promises to resolve the dispute over Brexit, as the process of Britain's separation from the European Union is popularly known.

But although both the ruling Conservatives and their chief opponent Labour vowed to make quick progress on Brexit, their first skirmishes in what promises to be a gruelling and ill-tempered electoral campaign offered no fresh ideas on how Britain can emerge from the current Brexit morass.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservatives have the simpler message: His government last month successfully negotiated a deal governing the terms of Britain's departure from the EU, and Mr Johnson promises that, should he win a majority on Dec 12, the newly elected British Parliament would quickly ratify the deal, and Britain would be out of the EU by January.

"The choice before country is really very clear," he told the electorate at the conclusion of the last full Cabinet meeting of his government.

"Do you want to go forward with our agenda which is to get Brexit done and then get on with delivering all the wonderful things we want to do for this country... or do you want to waste 2020?"

However, Mr Johnson quickly came under fire for his inability to say what would happen to Britain's trade relations after leaving the Union. The Brexit deal he negotiated merely covers the terms of the departure from the EU; ahead lies a much more difficult negotiation about the permanent trade relationship between Britain and Europe.

On the hustings, Mr Johnson claimed that he would conclude a free trade deal with the EU by January 2021, which coincides with the end of the transition period Britain has to disengage its affairs from Europe.

But the opposition Labour dismissed this promised timetable as "fanciful", pointing out that the trade deal between the EU and Canada - which many Conservatives want to copy for Britain's own treaty with Europe - took no less than seven years to complete.

The danger, Labour claims, is that unless Mr Johnson gets another extension of the negotiations with Europe - something the Prime Minister rules out - the British could still find themselves crashing out of the Union with no permanent trade deal.

 
 

Yet Labour's position on Brexit is also coming under intense scrutiny. Aware that many of the party's traditional supporters voted to pull Britain out of the EU when the referendum on this was held back in 2016 - some of the highest pro-Brexit majorities were in solidly Labour constituencies - but also eager to retain the loyalty of many Labour MPs who support of the EU, party leader Jeremy Corbyn is offering an alternative compromise solution which risks pleasing nobody.

Mr Corbyn is promising that, should he win the general elections next month, he could strike a "sensible" new deal with the EU within months "based on terms we have already discussed with the EU" such as Britain's membership of a customs union with Europe.

But at the same time, Mr Corbyn says, a Labour government would plan for a new referendum in June or July next year, in which the electorate would be asked to either approve the deal, or decide that Britain should remain a member of the EU after all.

"Labour's plan would get Brexit sorted so a Labour government can get on with delivering the real change Britain needs," he told his activists on the hustings.

But when faced with a barrage of questions, Mr Corbyn could not explain why the EU would consent to engage in another round of negotiations with the British, especially since European officials would be aware that whatever they negotiate with a Britain ruled by Mr Corbyn's Labour would have to be put to the electorate for a referendum.

More confusingly still, top members of the Labour party who are supporters of the EU have admitted that, if the party succeeds in gaining power and renegotiates the Brexit terms with the EU, they would campaign in a subsequent referendum for a rejection of the deal which they negotiated. In effect, therefore, they propose to sign a deal they do not like, in the hope that it would be rejected.

 
 

The Conservative hit hard at the opposition's Brexit proposals: "It is a fairy tale if you imagine Jeremy Corbyn can get Brexit done. His policy on Brexit has been constructed by a terminally weak leader in order to paper over the cracks in his party," claimed Mr Michael Gove, the minister in charge of Brexit planning in the Conservative government.

Both parties know that these are early days, and that their current clashes are merely a prelude to the bigger battle.

And although an average of opinion polls indicate that the Conservatives enjoy the support of around 36 per cent of the electorate against 25 per cent for Labour, with much of the rest split among smaller parties, few are prepared to predict the ballots' outcome.