How the Brexit Election Was Reduced to Trivia

No One Wants to Talk About the Real Question Looming Over the Ballot

Prime Minister Boris Johnson uses a sewing machine in Matlock, United Kingdom, December, 2019 Hannah McKay / Reuters

Days before the United Kingdom heads to the polls for its most consequential election in a generation, the lead stories on the country’s two most-read newspaper websites summed up the pettiness of British politics. “Boris Johnson denies joking about Donald Trump at NATO reception and not taking him seriously,” cried The Guardian in a reference to the prime minister’s appearance in a video that appeared to show world leaders deriding the U.S. president at the recent NATO summit. “You don’t watch the Queen’s Speech, do you Jeremy Corbyn?” the Daily Mail screamed in response to the Labour leader’s unwillingness to confirm whether he sat down with his family to watch the monarch’s annual televised Christmas Day address.

The election on December 12 is a choice between two very different—and very radical—visions of what the United Kingdom should be. The opposition Labour Party is led by Jeremy Corbyn, a 70-year-old campaigning socialist who spent his entire political career on the margins of the party before dramatically winning the leadership in 2015. He is proposing nothing less than a fundamental realignment of the British economy, taking a series of utilities and services out of private hands, investing hundreds of billions of pounds in a British version of the Green New Deal, and promising an end to some of the more egregious Conservative cuts to public services and the welfare state.

For the Conservatives, now led by Boris Johnson, this election is only about Brexit, the vexed question of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. A new Conservative majority would, depending on its size, confirm Brexit; a Labour majority (unlikely) or a Labour minority government (possible) would open the possibility of another referendum that could result in the United Kingdom staying in the EU. As the most prominent politician who advocated for Brexit ahead of the 2016 referendum, and as the prime minister who secured a withdrawal deal with the EU in November, he is hoping that

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