UK party leaders criss-crossed the country on the final day of campaigning ahead of Thursday’s (12 December) general election that remains tightly poised, with most opinion polls suggesting that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives will secure a narrow majority.
But the race is tightening as the opposition Labour party has closed the gap to around 8 points, and a further squeeze within the margin of error or tactical voting by pro-Remain supporters could deliver another hung Parliament. The results will be known in the early hours of Friday morning.
At stake is the UK’s planned withdrawal from the EU, following the 2016 referendum, with the 31 January deadline fast approaching, but also two widely different economic and welfare approaches offered by the two main camps.
Having sought to rerun the 2016 referendum campaign around a slogan of “Let’s get Brexit done”, the Conservatives are hoping to make gains from Labour in Leave-supporting areas in the Midlands and North of England.
They have also been helped by Brexit party leader Nigel Farage’s decision not to stand candidates in any of the seats won by the Conservatives in the 2017 election. Support for Farage’s party has fallen from around 20% in the autumn to around 3%.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties have promised to hold a second referendum on EU membership, although the Liberal Democrats are believed to have lost support as a result of going a step further and promising to stop the Brexit process by revoking Article 50.
In a statement earlier this week, the three biggest pro-Remain campaign groups – Best for Britain, People’s Vote and Remain United – said that “the only option left to voters wishing to avoid the dire consequences of Boris Johnson’s Brexit on the UK is to vote tactically”.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is among a group of high-profile Brexiteer lawmakers at risk of losing their seats to a surge in pro-Remain tactical voting.
Regardless of whether Boris Johnson’s Conservative party wins, his office confirmed that he would not attend this week’s EU summit in Brussels, which could be the last such meeting before the UK is due to formally leave the bloc on 31 January.
Instead, the new European Council President, Charles Michel, will represent the UK, EU officials confirmed on Wednesday.
Although Brexit is unlikely to preoccupy EU leaders this week, EU sources told EURACTIV that this was the first time that an election had kept a leader from attending an EU summit.
Should his party win, Johnson has promised to bring his Withdrawal Agreement back before UK lawmakers before Christmas, although there will not be enough time for the Bill to complete its passage through Parliament before the holiday season.
On Wednesday, Farage warned that Britain would be “back in crisis by May” as a Johnson-led government would quickly come under pressure to agree to an extension to the Brexit transition that is foreseen in the Withdrawal Agreement.
Johnson has ruled out the prospect of extending the transition period beyond December 2020, insisting that the UK can negotiate a new trade and political deal based on the EU-Canada trade deal within months.
However, EU officials and trade experts have repeatedly voiced their scepticism that anything beyond a basic no-tariff trade deal could be worked out and ratified by the 27 remaining EU member states in less than a year.
A leaked recording obtained by the Independent on Thursday had Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, telling a private meeting that it would not be possible to conclude talks on an ambitious trade deal of the sort demanded by the UK by the end of 2020.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]