Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

In the UK, uncertainty reigns

epa05950992 A close-up view of the Brexit-inspired mural by Banksy, showing a worker chipping away at a star on a EU flag, that has been painted on the side of a building in Dover, Britain, 08 May 2017. The artwork emerged overnight under Dover Castle near the ferry terminal, which connects the UK with mainland Europe. The mural, which was confirmed by Banksy's representatives to be a genuine work by the British street artist, is his first comment on the Brexit vote last year. EPA/GERRY PENNY

EPA/GERRY PENNY

A Brexit-inspired mural by Banksy painted on the side of a building in Dover, Britain.

LONDON

Try to keep calm as the UK muddles along.

That might well be the British watchword as the June 8 general election approaches.

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What will the Brexit divorce look like economically?

When United Kingdom leaves the European Union, will Scotland leave the UK in order to stay in the EU?

Will the Northern Ireland/Ireland demarcation become a hard border, with only limited crossing points?

No one knows.

“I can’t think of any time in my political life — and it’s my 10th general election — when I’ve felt more nervous about the future,” says Baroness Angela Smith, leader of the opposition in the House of Lords and before that a long-time member of parliament for Basildon, 30 miles or so east of London.

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There is one certainty, however: The separation from Europe won’t be on the happy have-your-EU-and-defeat-it-too terms politicians like Boris Johnson had promised.

“It’s rubbish,” Smith tells me over coffee.

And yet, the prospect that this snap election might trigger a rethinking of the pro-Brexit vote of June 2016 is considered unlikely even by those who favor staying. Instead, the overarching campaign narrative is one of a prime minister seen as tough and capable — one who wins reluctant respect as the best person to pursue the EU divorce she once opposed — versus a hard-left Labour leader widely viewed as poorly suited for governing the country.

Jesse Roberts, 28, a corporate human resources officer, a Londoner, and a Remain voter in 2016, says she finds the idea of Brexit so depressing she tries not to think about it. Yet even though she usually votes for the Liberal Democrats, she praises May.

“I think she is probably doing the best she can do,” Roberts says. “She is probably the only person for the job at the moment.”

Indeed, in recent days, May has been on the offensive, targeting Labour voters with proposals for expanded family-care and bereavement leave, which she styles as part of her promise to keep EU- style protections after the separation takes place.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, has been left to argue that he isn’t a Pacifist and really could foresee circumstances where he’d use military force — though confronting Hitler and Nazi Germany in World War II seems to be the only one that springs readily to his mind.

Corbyn’s job approval is barely above water (51-47 percent) even among Labour supporters, 60 percent of whom judge it unlikely that he’ll ever be prime minister. Only mutedly for staying in the EU before the vote, Corbyn now says the will of the voters must be respected. That makes Tony Blair the most prominent Labour voice against Brexit. He, however, is thought of as “yesterday’s man,” someone whose stature has suffered badly as a result of his solidarity with George W. Bush on the Iraq War.

As for parties, the Liberal Democrats are the only remotely realistic electoral voice in England against leaving the EU, though north of the border, the Scottish National Party is also strongly in favor of staying. But having dropped from 57 seats to eight in the last election (nine now), the Liberal Democrats are campaigning from a position of weakness. Short of a gargantuan gain, even strong results for them are unlikely to send much of a message.

If the Remain supporters lack a compelling vehicle, pro-Brexit supporters have one, of course, in the Conservatives. Once largely opposed, they now firmly embrace leaving the EU — and have been convincing enough in that position to have drained much of the support away from UKIP, the UK Independence Party.

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For many Londoners, who voted heavily to stay in the EU, this has been a dispiriting time indeed.

“In our mind, immigration is a good thing,” says Nico Yearwood, a standup comic originally from Barbados. “In our mind, just about everything that is good about London is multi-cultural.”

For other former Remain voters such as Leslie and Paul Byrne, middle-aged Conservative voters from Harrogate, about 15 miles north of Leeds, it’s more a matter of, well, the country spoke, and that’s that.

“We are where we are now, so let’s get on with it,” said Leslie.

Despite his Remain vote, Paul wasn’t displeased when the Leave side won. Still, he worries the coming changes will hurt the UK economically.

So is there any realistic hope for those who want to remain in the EU?

“The only way you would get another national vote in this country is if there was a bottom up demand for it,” says Baroness Smith, something that might happen if the final Brexit deal looks like just too much of a leap into the unknown.

But that remains unlikely.

And in the meantime, uncertainty rides high in the saddle.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.
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