Britain yesterday voted in a deeply divisive election that posed a historic choice between an imminent split from the European Union or another referendum that could scrap the entire Brexit project.
A decisive victory for Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the third poll in less than five years would almost certainly end Britain’s 46-year involvement in the European project at the end of next month.
But a win for the opposition could still reverse the Brexit process and give Britain its most leftist government in decades, led by Jeremy Corbyn — a veteran socialist committed to renationalisation and massive public sector spending.
Britons braved winter storms and howling winds as they lined up to cast ballots in what Johnson and Corbyn have both described as the most important vote in a generation.
“I think that the government has just been stuck for a long time and we need to get things moving now,” Londoner Naomi Buthe said.
Opinion polls show Johnson’s ruling Conservatives leading by a narrow margin.
But they were almost unanimously wrong about the last general election in 2017 and Johnson said the outcome rested on a “knife edge”.
The parliament has been deadlocked since the 2016 referendum on EU membership saw a narrow majority vote to leave.
The outcome stunned financial markets and paralysed Britain’s political process.
Parliament’s splintered parties — some seeking broader independence and others wanting to keep Britain’s European ties — repeatedly rejected the divorce terms former prime minister Theresa May struck with Brussels last year.
Johnson took over in July but was also stymied.
The 2016 Brexit campaign’s figurehead now hopes to secure both a mandate and a majority that lets him sever Britain’s ties with its closest partners after nearly a year of delays.
“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.
Yet the complex divorce between the single market of 27 remaining EU nations and Britain would run on even of the first stage of Brexit end next month.
Brussels has indicated that Johnson’s plans to secure a comprehensive trade deal needed to secure smooth future relations before a December 2020 deadline is unrealistic.
That would again raise the prospect of Britain facing a no-deal scenario that plunges business and the economy into fresh uncertainty.
The pound slipped in afternoon trading in expectation of exit polls at 2200GMT.
The first official results are expected an hour later.
A victory for Labour would make 70-year-old Corbyn the party’s first prime minister since Gordon Brown in 2010 — and the oldest first-time premier since Viscount Palmerston in 1855.
Corbyn’s proposal for Brexit is for Labour to strike a more EU-friendly agreement with Brussels.
Voters would then choose between that deal and the option of staying in the bloc.
But he has refused to publicly back or oppose Brexit and instead cast himself as an “honest arbiter” who would carry out voters’ wishes — no matter the outcome — in a bid to unify the country. “Vote for hope. Vote for real change,” he said on the eve of the vote.
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