Viewed from a distance, Brexit Britain has resembled a fly hurling itself at a pane of glass next to an open window. It is nearly a year since Theresa May negotiated a route out of the European Union. But the window wasn’t good enough for leavers who thought they should shatter the glass instead. On it went: buzz, thud, buzz, thud; a country going nowhere in a frenzy.
Then Boris Johnson took over, pledging deliverance by 31 October: “do or die”. Buzz, buzz, thud. Exhaustion, frustration, and failure of imagination have finally brought parliament to the brink of dissolution.
It is a desultory motive, and MPs on all sides are trepidatious about a December ballot. Christmas is not traditional election season and it isn’t clear how kindly the electorate will take to the idea. Brexit has already corroded traditional party allegiances and incentivised tactical voting. There is no one pendulum swinging between blue and red. In 2017, polls at the start of the contest proved a hopeless guide to the final outcome.
Johnson has no intention of repelling voters as efficiently as May did. He is incomparably better on the stump, and the campaign he wants to run has been sitting in a Downing Street drawer for months awaiting activation – a presidential-style race against Jeremy Corbyn. No 10 strategists surmise that Labour’s prospects would be enhanced under any other leader. Johnson also fancies his chances as the holder of a Brexit deal – safe passage out of the quagmire, when everyone else in the contest offers more bog.
But many Tories are nervous about this plan. A pledge to deliver Brexit is not the same as Brexit delivered, and Johnsonian promises are not a high-value currency. Even his closest allies hesitate to list integrity and consistency among his qualities. There is also uncertainty around his supposed electoral magnetism. It has never been tested in Labour heartland seats where, in theory, leave votes are up for grabs. There is also a cultural inoculation against Tories in those parts that pre-dates Brexit. In Scotland, the blustering Etonian shtick is a drag on a weak Tory brand. Factor in an exodus of pro-Europeans to the Liberal Democrats and it gets very hard to map Johnson’s route to a majority.
Corbyn’s path is even harder, which is why many Labour MPs resisted the election. (Some of them also think he is unfit for Downing Street and dread having to pretend he should be prime minister, regardless of whether they think it can happen.) The leader himself relishes a campaign because that is the kind of politics he can do. Corbyn would rather be in a town hall, firing up the faithful with dire warnings about Tories and the NHS than cooped up in parliament with a convoluted Brexit position. Labour pessimists speculate that their leader would rather fight and lose than wait; better martyrdom in electoral battle than suffocation in the Commons. The Corbynite faithful expect their champion’s candidacy to come alive in the bracing air of an election.
Even Tories who think Johnson’s gamble will work recognise that it is risky. No one really has a clue how a December poll will play out, which would be something to celebrate if there was also a way to believe the air would be clearer in the aftermath.
There ought to be something thrilling about a roll of the democratic dice, yet there is a despondent cloud over the whole enterprise. Activists would rather be pounding the streets in spring sunshine, but winter weather isn’t going to deter the hardcore. (Besides, a lot of the message delivery these days is done by algorithms that don’t feel the cold.) The sense of dark foreboding in Westminster is not meteorological.
Johnson’s Britain and Corbyn’s Britain are vastly different countries, on starkly divergent paths. Each one contains millions of opponents who will feel more like dissidents under a hostile ideological regime than citizens under a government they happened not to choose.
Also feasible is a parliament in which forces are as finely balanced as they are now. Few MPs expect a poll to solve the economic or political problems generated by the decision to leave the EU. None believes it will hasten cultural reconciliation between those who demand Brexit at any price and those who want it abandoned. And the tenor of British politics in recent years hardly inspires confidence that a campaign will illuminate the issues or cultivate a spirit of tolerance.
Even if headline campaign messages are positive and election law imposes crude balance on broadcast media, the unregulated digital arena will host a gruesome gladiatorial free-for-all. The engines of radicalisation and polarisation that drive hyper-partisan politics on- and offline are revving hard already. It is a more ominous sound than the needling buzz of endless Brexit delay.
Fear of an indecisive result is not a reason to avoid an election. It would be perverse if we were only invited to vote when a landslide outcome was guaranteed. Parliament is stuck, and dissolution is what the constitution prescribes to restart it. Electoral uncertainty should not be cause for alarm in a mature democracy, and true democrats do not shy away from a polling booth. Still, it is hard to shake the fear that British politics will be even angrier and more divided after an election campaign than it is now.
No one imagines there is a result to satisfy everyone. There must be winners and losers. Democracy does not demand consensus; but it does require losers to accept the authority of winners, and winners to recognise legitimate interests of losers. That is the quality that has been corroded by the past few years. The problem is not our failure to reach harmony over Brexit. The dark shadow over an election is cast by the failure of our politics to function in a state of civil disagreement.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist