Britain votes in snap 'Brexit election'

Last Updated 12 December 2019, 09:24 IST

Britain went to the polls on Thursday, with the future of Brexit hanging in the balance, in a snap pre-Christmas election aimed at drawing a line under years of political gridlock and bitter division.

More than 4,000 polling venues across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland -- including a windmill, some pubs and a chip shop -- opened their doors for a poll described as the most important in a generation.

A decisive victory for Prime Minister Boris Johnson would most likely end Britain's 46-year involvement in the European Union next month, setting Britain on course to chart a new future based on closer ties with the United States and even China.

But a win for the pro-EU opposition could still reverse the Brexit process and give Britain its most leftist government in decades led by veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn, committed to re-nationalisation and massive public sector spending.

"For them. Vote Labour," the pro-Corbyn Daily Mirror said on its front page, showing pictures of the homeless sleeping on the street and nurses in understaffed hospitals.

"Save Brexit. Save Britain," the pro-Johnson Sun newspaper countered on its own front page.

Johnson himself said the election was on a "knife edge," with the polls indicating him in the lead, but possibly by a margin too small to form his own government.

All eyes initially were on the winter weather, with forecasts of near-freezing temperatures, rain and even snow in some parts that could affect turn-out in the first December election in nearly a century.

Up for grabs are all 650 seats in the British parliament, which has been deadlocked since the 2016 referendum on EU membership that saw a narrow majority vote to leave.

The first indication of the overall result will come in an exit poll at 2200 GMT. The first actual result is due from around 2300 GMT. The remainder will trickle in overnight.

Johnson, who took over from Theresa May in July after she was unable to get parliament to approve her EU divorce deal, is hoping to secure both a mandate and a majority.

"Just imagine how wonderful it will be to settle down to a turkey dinner this Christmas with Brexit decided," he said in a final message to voters.

A victory for Labour would make Corbyn the party's first prime minister since Gordon Brown in 2010 -- and at 70, the oldest first-time premier since Viscount Palmerston in 1855.

Corbyn is proposing to renegotiate softer exit terms with Brussels within three months and put them to a new referendum, alongside an option to remain in the 27-member bloc, after a three-month campaign.

But he has refused to either publicly back or oppose Brexit, saying he was an "honest arbiter" who would carry out voters' wishes, no matter the outcome, in a bid to unify the endlessly bickering country.

"Vote for hope. Vote for real change," he said.

Johnson has hammered home his message to "Get Brexit Done" against a backdrop of voter fatigue at the election -- the third in less than five years -- and the tortuous Brexit process.

But the EU itself has indicated the chances of securing a comprehensive trade deal before a December 2020 deadline is unrealistic.

That would again raise the prospect of Britain facing a "no deal" scenario, plunging business and the British economy into fresh uncertainty.

Corbyn, meanwhile, has had to brush off claims of indecision about his neutral Brexit stance, and claims of anti-Semitism within Labour.

Pollsters YouGov last month predicted that Johnson's Conservatives would have a comfortable 68-seat majority but on Tuesday indicated that projection been cut to 28.

Brexit has turned traditional political allegiances on their head and shock results could be on the cards, with tactical voting expected along Leave/Remain, rather than party lines.

Labour's so-called "Red Wall" in northern England -- which mainly voted to leave the EU -- is being watched closely for Conservative gains, as is north Wales, another traditional bastion of the left.

"There's more volatility than there ever has been before," said Chris Curtis, political research manager at YouGov.

"At this stage, the most likely outcome is a Conservative majority," he told AFP.

"However, a hung parliament is possible but also a much larger Conservative majority isn't something that we could rule out."

(Published 12 December 2019, 09:19 IST)

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