Europe

General election 2017: UK voters still puzzled by Brexit

People view a recently painted mural by British graffiti artist Banksy, depicting a workman chipping away at one of the stars on a European Union (EU) themed flag Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A mural by British artist Banksy on Brexit, which has been at the centre of the campaign

UK Prime Minister Theresa May made the snap election on 8 June personal right from the start.

In April she said the election would not be just about the parties' competing visions on Brexit, but also about who could best pull off a deal.

"It will be a choice between strong and stable leadership in the national interest, with me as your prime minister, or weak and unstable coalition government, led by Jeremy Corbyn," she said.

"Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the prime ministers, presidents and chancellors of the European Union."

She stressed early on that the stakes could hardly be higher. After all, whoever wins this election will face three extraordinary challenges:

  • Shaping Britain's post-Brexit future, after more than 40 years of EU membership being a cornerstone of the UK's economy and diplomacy
  • Keeping the UK from breaking apart over its exit from the EU
  • Healing the still sometimes bitter divisions between the opposing sides in last year's EU referendum.

At first Mrs May seemed on track for a thumping victory.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Theresa May has focused on the need for a strong mandate in Brexit negotiations

The early evidence suggested that Brexit was trumping normal party loyalties, with many of Labour's white working-class voters, who had backed Leave, deserting the party over the EU and because of their dislike for Jeremy Corbyn.

In one so-called "safe" Labour seat near Manchester I struggled to find anyone who would be backing the party in 2017, despite hours talking to voters.

And crucially Mrs May was winning back many of the nearly four million people who had voted for the anti-EU party UKIP at the last election.

Scotland: The question of independence

Her decision to call a snap election also seemed to be working in Scotland.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Scotland rejected independence from the UK in a referendum in 2014

As I travelled amid the beautiful hills and small towns of the Scottish Borders, I saw and heard first-hand the phenomenon of voters opposed to independence deciding to back the Conservatives, seeing it as the best way of voicing opposition to a second Scottish referendum.

Of course this general election won't settle the question of how best Scotland should be governed, given the continuing high levels of support for independence.

But it will affect who has the political momentum, and whether another referendum will be held before or after Brexit, or perhaps whether it happens at all.

Northern Ireland: Return of a hard border?

It's certainly Brexit that is dominating the election in Northern Ireland, where the EU referendum last June divided the province, as ever, on sectarian lines. Most Roman Catholics voted to remain in the EU, while many Protestants voted to leave.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Border communities have protested against the possibility of the return of a hard border

Although Northern Irish voters told me they couldn't imagine a return to violence, they did voice concern about what would happen to relations between the North and South, and in particular, whether border controls would be reintroduced after Brexit.

It was while I was in Northern Ireland, a part of the UK where the mainland parties neither stand nor campaign, that Mrs May's election seemed to come unstuck.

Just days after launching her party's manifesto, she abandoned a key part of it, thus undermining her main slogan that she was the only politician offering "strong and stable" leadership.

The terror attack in Manchester temporarily put the election campaign on hold. When it resumed, the bombing seemed not to have had much effect on the polls.

Whether the 3 June attack in London will have a bigger effect on the final outcome, given the more political reaction of the parties, is hard to say.

Extensive academic research in other countries suggests attacks during election campaigns don't tend to have much effect. Maybe the UK will prove different, but maybe not.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Labour's Jeremy Corbyn has promised to scrap the Conservatives' Brexit White Paper

Despite Jeremy Corbyn's past support for groups many voters would consider to be terrorists, attention once again focused on Mrs May and her somewhat tarnished image as a rather wooden politician, campaigning more on slogans than clear policies.

Ultimately Mrs May continues to hope that, whatever her flaws, on 8 June the voters will decide she rather than Jeremy Corbyn would get the best deal on Brexit.

As to this being dubbed the Brexit election, it may well be that Brexit decides the outcome, rather than concerns about security or austerity.

But any voters, countries or companies hoping to learn much more from the campaigns about what Britain's post-EU future holds will have been sadly disappointed.

Above all, this has felt like an election that has failed to come to life, despite the stakes being higher than in decades.

It seems to be an election where the key questions affecting millions of people won't be answered until after the votes are counted and the Brexit negotiations begin.

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