LONDON (AP) — Finally, Britain's political ice floes are moving. After three years of Brexit impasse, an election in six weeks may break the logjam. Or it may just rearrange the ice pack, keeping the U.K. trapped half in and half out of the European Union.
Official campaigning for the Dec. 12 poll hasn't even started yet, but Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn were already laying out their key arguments for a Brexit-dominated election as they sparred Wednesday in the House of Commons.
Johnson claimed his left-wing rival would subject the country to endless "dither and delay" over its EU departure, while Corbyn accused Johnson of planning to slash employment rights and sell off chunks of Britain's health service after Brexit.
The partisan peacocking came a day after the House of Commons approved an early election , 2 1/2 years before Britain is next scheduled to go to the polls. The unelected House of Lords approved the bill Wednesday.
While Johnson's Conservative Party has a wide lead in most opinion polls, analysts say the election is unpredictable because Brexit cuts across traditional party loyalties. For many voters, their Identities as "leavers" or "remainers" are more important than party affiliation,
The Conservatives face a challenge for pro-Brexit voters from Nigel Farage's Brexit Party, which wants to leave the EU without any deal on future relations. The centrist Liberal Democrats, who want to cancel Brexit, are wooing pro-EU supporters from the Conservatives and Labour in Britain's big cities and liberal university towns.
"The British electorate is more volatile than it has ever been," said Anand Menon, director of the U.K. in a Changing Europe think-tank. "Between 2010 and 2017, 49% of electors changed the party they voted for. So there is all of that uncertainly. Then we are not sure about turnout in December. Is the weather going to be cold? Will people turn out in the dark to vote?"
All parties worry that that they could be hurt by voters' Brexit fatigue. Britons are tired and grumpy as they face the third major electoral event in as many years, after the country's 2016 EU membership referendum and a 2017 election called by Johnson's predecessor Theresa May to try to boost the Conservatives' majority and strengthen her hand in negotiations with the EU. Instead, the party ended up losing its majority in Parliament, and May failed to pass her plans for leaving the EU.
"This has become 'Groundhog Day,'" said Patricia Sharman, a Brexit supporter who for almost a year has been coming to stand outside Parliament with her "no betrayal" sign. She thought she would be able to stop on Thursday, Britain's scheduled EU departure date. This week the EU postponed Brexit until Jan. 31 because of the political gridlock in London.
"We need to be relieved of purgatory," Sharman said.
Johnson is hoping to win over voters like Sharman, even though he failed to deliver on his vow that Britain would leave the EU on Oct. 31 "come what may." He'll campaign as a leader who has been stymied by an obstructive Parliament in his mission to deliver Brexit.
Johnson struck a divorce deal laying out the terms of Britain's orderly departure from the EU, which was approved in principle by lawmakers. But he withdrew it after Parliament demanded more time to scrutinize it.
Johnson said Wednesday that his top priority was "getting Brexit done and ending the dither and delay."
Labour is seeking to project unity despite divisions over whether to go through with Brexit. After much internal wrangling, the party backs a new referendum on whether to stay in the EU or leave — but has not said which side it would support.
The left-of-center party is calculating that voters want to talk about issues such as health care, the environment and social welfare — all of which saw years of funding cuts by Conservative governments — instead of more Brexit debates.
Labour also argues that Johnson's Brexit deal will leave the country poorer, an assessment backed by many economists. Independent think-tank the National Institute of Economic and Social Research said Wednesday that leaving on those terms would make the British economy 3.5% smaller in a decade compared with staying in the European Union.
Corbyn claimed Wednesday that Brexit on Johnson's terms would bring a "sell-out deal with Donald Trump" in which chunks of Britain's state-funded health service would be sold to U.S. medical providers and drug companies as part of future trade negotiations.
Johnson retorted that Labour had flipflopped on Brexit — "Now 'leave,' now 'remain,' refusing to accept the verdict of the people in the referendum on the EU."
The election pits Johnson, a brash Brexit champion with a shock of blond hair and a Latin quip for all occasions, against Corbyn, a stolid socialist with long-held — and, foes say, archaic — policies of nationalization and tax hikes for the rich.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, noted that in the 2017 election, Corbyn did far better than opinion polls had predicted.
"Having said that, I think we do need to remember he's not up against one of the worst campaigners for the Conservative Party in living memory — Theresa May. He's up against one of the best, Boris Johnson," Bale said.
He said Johnson had a "celebrity star status which blinds quite a lot of voters to what some would consider his fairly obvious faults."
Those include a history of offensive comments and an ongoing inquiry into claims Johnson handed out public funds meant for business startups to a friend while he was mayor of London.
As Britain prepares to vote, the clock is ticking down to the new Brexit deadline of Jan. 31, the date approved by the EU this week. If December's election produces a Parliament as divided as the current one, another delay to Brexit — and a fourth national vote in four years — could be on the cards.
"If Johnson gets a majority, then we're leaving the EU," Bale said. "If we end up with another hung Parliament, I would have thought the only way to get a decision would be a second referendum. Although MPs aren't keen on the idea, there would seem to be no other way out of the impasse."
Associated Press writers Danica Kirka and Dorothee Thiesing in London contributed to this report.
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