Brexit weekly briefing: election vote nears but fight is far from finished

Jon Henley Europe correspondent
Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

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The penultimate week of the election campaign began badly for Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour leader, grilled by the BBC’s Andrew Neil, insisted antisemitism had not risen in Labour on his watch and resisted repeated calls to apologise to Britain’s Jews.

Things looked up somewhat, however, when he presented a 451-page dossier which he said proved the showing the US preferred a no-deal Brexit and was demanding the NHS would be “on the table” in talks on a future trade deal.

Apparently rattled by an in-depth YouGov “MRP” poll (of the kind that predicted the outcome of the 2017 election) showing the Conservatives on course for a comfortable 68-seat majority, Labour instigated a tactical switch from going after Tory marginals to consolidating seats they already hold and trying to win back leave voters.

The Lib Dems, meanwhile, were told by their former leader Vince Cable that their policy of scrapping Brexit without another referendum – which looks like doing them no favours with voters – was “a distraction and not a very helpful one”.

The Conservatives, for their part, were embarrassed by Boris Johnson’s decision not to take part in a Channel 4 climate debate, prompting the broadcaster to replace him with a melting ice statue (thought not in the prime minister’s image).

Johnson claimed a Tory government would be freed up to give more state aid to struggling companies after leaving the EU, but faced criticism over whether he was prepared to face a Neil inquisition of the kind that had posed Corbyn such problems.

The row is unresolved, but tragedy – in the form of a London Bridge terror attack that left two dead – prompted the BBC to invite the PM on to Andrew Marr’s show anyway, where he blamed Labour for the early release of the killer and made a series of questionable and downright inaccurate statements.

The independent and respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said neither the Conservatives nor Labour were offering a “properly credible prospectus” in their respective manifestos. And in the polls, the gap between the two parties narrowed.

What next

First, the election is far from over: no less an authority than Dominic Cummings warned Tory campaigners it was way tighter than it looked. And if he does not win a clear majority, academics said, Johnson may be forced to hold a second referendum.

Even if he does it won’t be plain sailing: Ivan Rogers, the UK’s ex-ambassador to the EU, fired another blistering Brexit broadside, saying “diplomatic amateurism” and the PM’s “strategy errors” were sowing the seeds of “the biggest crisis of Brexit to date”.

But things may not be that easy on the EU side either, warned the incoming European council president Charles Michel: Brexit may have brought the EU27 together, but the next phase could see internal divisions emerging over trade talks with the UK.

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In the Observer, Andrew Rawnsley argues there’s no more deceptive slogan of this election campaign than “get Brexit done”:

It is a fair bet that a Johnson majority government will get the withdrawal agreement that he negotiated with the EU through the Commons, probably in time to have the UK out by the end of January. It cannot be said often enough, however, that this will not be the end of the Brexit saga. It will not even be the beginning of the end. It will be merely the end of the beginning. The withdrawal agreement covers only the terms of the divorce and a period of transition thereafter. It says little definitive about the future relationship between Britain and its closest neighbours and most important trading partners. Those voters who are planning to pick the Tories in the belief that they will never have to hear about Brexit again are in for a disillusioning experience. This next and tough round of bargaining comes with a deadline attached, which is 31 December 2020. A year is a short time in international negotiations of this magnitude and complexity. All of the recent free-trade agreements that the EU has struck with significant economies have taken at least three years to conclude and several have taken much, much longer. Any deal will have to be ratified by every EU national parliament and by several regional ones. The transition can be extended to the end of 2022, but a request would have to be made by next July and Johnson has anyway flatly ruled it out. So, very early in the life of a re-elected Conservative government, we would be back to ticking clocks, brinkmanship, showdowns and cliff edges, probably accompanied by a lot of angry cabinet rows about what kind of compromises and trade-offs are acceptable to achieve an agreement. And if there were no resolution by the end of 2020, Britain would once again be facing the calamitous prospect of crashing out of the EU with no deal.

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