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Illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck

Tom Rachman’s novels include The Imperfectionists and The Italian Teacher. He is based in London.

Who should ruin Britain?

On the right, an entitled buffoon without principles, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is committed (as much as a liar can be) to the lunatic self-harm of Brexit. Or on the left, a Lenin-cap-wearing parody of political delusion, Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who avoids any position on the most pressing dilemma of postwar Britain, instead prophesying a workers’ paradise that he shall fail even to fail at.

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More than three years since the referendum on leaving the European Union, it comes to this: a choice between awfuls.

The general election next Thursday, Dec. 12, will be the third since 2015, a stretch of British history whose proud achievements include: a population torn in two by an issue that concerned few beforehand; once-respectable political parties in thrall to radicals and bunglers; the endangerment of the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; an economy imperiled; a global reputation squandered.

An anti-Brexit protester walks outside the Houses of Parliament in London.

Henry Nicholls/Reuters

From abroad, Brexit seems never to end. It feels worse here, a form of torture that melds panic with tedium, like being trapped in a room with the world’s slowest axe murderer: You want to focus on anything else, but dare not look away. Tales abound of Brexit-induced depressions, citizens in despair over the charlatans railroading their future and the neighbours estranged on the other side of the Leave/Remain wall.

The governing Conservative Party, in the grip of hard Brexiteers such as Mr. Johnson, is pledging to conclude this national misery. “Get Brexit Done” is the campaign slogan.

The unmentioned catch is that quitting is just the start. Years of bureaucratic hell will ensue, with excruciating trade negotiations to cobble together worse versions of what Britain currently enjoys as part of a mighty 28-country bloc.

The Leave side clambered to victory in the 2016 referendum on a mountain of falsehoods, assuring voters of wealth and liberty without the EU, while parping nostalgically about a greater Britain to reclaim. Nothing would be easier! Matters, you may have heard, haven’t gone quite that way.

According to YouGov polling data, 77 per cent believe the Tory government has handled the British exit from the EU badly. Overwhelming majorities also disapprove of the government’s handling of the health service, immigration, crime, housing, the environment and more. As for Mr. Johnson, a mere 25 per cent consider him trustworthy.

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In Redruth, Cornwall, Conservative Leader Boris Johnson tries his hand on the packing line at Cornish Clotted Cream manufacturer Rodda's on a Nov. 27 campaign stop.

DAN KITWOOD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn tries bricklaying at a Nov. 25 campaign stop.

OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

So how will the Labour Party contrive to lose this election?

The opposition began its long march from second-best to second-best in 2015, when the party chose as leader a whitebeard from the far-left. Mr. Corbyn – a middle-class vegetarian from north London whose hobbies include drain-spotting (the study of manhole covers) – entered Parliament in 1983, when Margaret Thatcher won her second term as prime minister. Aghast, he watched her transform the country, crushing the unions, privatizing state industries and elevating a brash form of capitalism. During the years of Tony Blair’s Labour government, Mr. Corbyn remained peripheral – a protester, decrying with faint echo.

When he sought the party leadership in 2015, many Labour MPs bridled, considering him incapable of leading them to a majority. Yet, the unlikely hero stirred passion among activists, particularly the young and the fed-up, to whom JC was saviour. Their gamble came at the worst time.

Mr. Corbyn has never registered the gravity of Brexit, trying to squint past the ogre, envisioning his kingdom to come. Ahead of the 2016 referendum, Mr. Corbyn advocated for Remain so feebly that many suspected he secretly favoured Leave; he even took a little vacation during the campaign, although the country hung in the balance. Since then, he has flapped around on Brexit, before boldly landing on the fence.

Labour’s current policy is to wring a better deal from the EU and put it to another referendum with Remain as an option – at which point, Mr. Corbyn would take no position on what the country should choose. In a recent video of quickfire questions, he was asked “Leave or Remain?”

“Both,” he replied.

An anti-Corbyn poster is displayed beside Conservative MP Matt Hancock and Nicky Morgan, who is standing down as a Conservative MP in this election, in London on Nov. 25.

Matt Dunham/The Associated Press

His waffling isn’t without motive. Most Labour voters supported Remain, but many preferred Leave, especially among the party’s traditional support in the North of England and the Midlands. They could ditch Labour if they feel betrayed on Brexit.

Mr. Corbyn is also correct to worry about Britain beyond Brexit.

Since 2010, the Conservative Party’s budget-slashing, known as “austerity,” has gutted funding for social services, the police, the courts and the local councils that are saddled with the resulting problems. Nearly one in three British children now live in poverty; food banks have never been so busy.

Meantime, the beloved National Health Service is in decay, with a record 4.4 million people on waiting lists for non-emergency care, such as hip replacements or cataract operations. Cancer patients should begin treatment within 62 days of diagnosis – hardly the haste you’d want, yet this target is missed more than ever. Nor are understaffed hospitals coping in the emergency room, where patients ought to be seen within four hours, but commonly aren’t.

The Labour manifesto promises to kick up health spending; renationalize the railways, the utility companies, the postal service; abolish tuition fees for university students; expand free childcare; recruit more police officers; build a million homes for the poorest; provide free, superfast broadband for all; offer annual dental checkups; plant two billion trees over the next 20 years (that’d be three trees a second, around the clock). For each extra pound the Tories are pledging to spend, Labour promises 28.

“It’s impossible to overstate just how extraordinary this manifesto is in terms of the sheer scale of money being spent and raised through the tax system,” Paul Johnson, head of the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, told ITV. “Take it from me, these are vast numbers. Enormous. Colossal in the context of anything we’ve seen.” In contrast, the Tory manifesto is notable for promising so little besides Brexit. “As a blueprint for five years in government, the lack of significant policy action is remarkable,” he said.

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Mr. Corbyn campaigns with activists outside London's Finsbury Park station to promote Labour's promised cuts to rail fares.

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

Campaigners canvassing door-to-door for Labour report a glitch in the Corbyn revolution: The masses venerate him less than he venerates the masses. In opinion surveys, they choose words such as “incompetent,” “untrustworthy,” “indecisive,” “weak” and “dislikeable.”

Mr. Corbyn has embodied many of those adjectives in his response to a scandal of antisemitism in the Labour Party, where cranks in the far-left have permitted rancour for Israeli policy to creep into bigotry against the Jewish community itself.

“The claims by leadership figures in the Labour Party that it is ‘doing everything’ it reasonably can to tackle the scourge of anti-Jewish racism and that it has ‘investigated every single case,’ are a mendacious fiction,” the British chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, wrote in The Times late last month. “A new poison – sanctioned from the very top – has taken root in the Labour Party.”

A day after this withering charge, Mr. Corbyn appeared on BBC television to face a famously exacting questioner, Andrew Neil – an encounter since known as “the Car-Crash Interview.” Speaking in muted tones as if to stifle his anger, Mr. Corbyn sat in a desk chair, hands in his lap, long legs bent awkwardly, like a truculent schoolboy called to the headmaster who’s not not not going to say he’s sorry.

“Eighty per cent of Jews think that you’re antisemitic. That’s quite a lot of British Jews,” Mr. Neil said. “I mean, wouldn’t you like to take this opportunity tonight to apologize to the British Jewish community for what’s happened?”

Mr. Corbyn declined, preferring generic denunciations of all forms of racism. “I don’t want anyone to go through what anyone has gone through,” he gibbered.

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Locals in Uxbridge hold a protest in August of 2018 after Mr. Johnson, then the former foreign secretary, made disparaging comments about British Muslim women covering their faces.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Boris Johnson, it should be noted, has made various bigoted remarks, especially in newspaper columns. He wrote that Muslim women who wear niqabs “go around looking like letter boxes;” he described the cheering crowds that greet the Queen in the Commonwealth as “flag-waving piccaninnies,” and spoke of Africans breaking out in “watermelon smiles.” A further disturbing trait is his habitual deceit in the service of personal advancement.

Yet somehow, he gets a pass. Partly, this is because the most fearsome parts of the British press are right-wing. Partly, it’s because Mr. Johnson is witty. But he also benefits from a form of impunity enjoyed by the likes of Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi, where loutish behaviour and self-interest-as-politics are so shameless as to desensitize the public. It’s part of the brand.

Aside from promising to “do” Brexit, Mr. Johnson’s electoral strategy seems to be to avoid tricky interviews, then stroll to victory – the culmination of a career of failing upward. Back when Mr. Johnson was 17, his father received a letter from the elite boys’ school Eton, complaining of Boris’s irresponsibility. “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else,” a schoolmaster wrote.

Yet Mr. Johnson glided on to Oxford, then to a desirable trainee position at The Times, only to be sacked for making up a quote. He soared higher from there, becoming a foreign correspondent in Brussels for The Daily Telegraph, specializing in defamatory falsehoods about the European Union. The then-editor of the Telegraph, Max Hastings, later described Mr. Johnson as “a brilliant entertainer” who “is unfit for national office, because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.”

Through television, Mr. Johnson won nationwide renown for his stammering posh-boy gag, appearing on a comedy panel show, Have I Got News For You. Next came a seat in Parliament, then a place in the shadow cabinet, until he was again fired for lying, this time about an extramarital affair that had resulted in two abortive pregnancies. As he wrote then: “My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”

His predecessor as Tory prime minister, Theresa May, an ineffectual leader remembered for catatonic phrases such as “Brexit means Brexit,” promoted Mr. Johnson to foreign secretary, granting an international platform for his gaffes. After Ms. May failed repeatedly to pass her Brexit bill, she resigned in tears. By this past summer, the blond ambition known simply as “Boris” resided in 10 Downing Street, mussing his hair for the cameras, the smirk quavering. What Mr. Johnson lacked was a majority, preventing him from passing the hard version of Brexit his team had negotiated. He looked across the aisle of the House of Commons, saw that frowning 70-year-old granola leftie, and slavered at the chance to face him in a general election.

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Mr. Johnson visits a Christmas market in Salisbury, southwest England, on Dec. 3.

HANNAH MCKAY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Mr. Corbyn helps to sort crates of food during a Dec. 2 visit to Surviving the Streets in St. Leonards, England.

Gareth Fuller/PA via AP

According to a major poll last week, the Conservatives could be on course for a large majority: 359 seats to 211 for Labour, its worst result in decades. By election day, that gap could narrow, but Labour is struggling to break through. For voters who despise both main parties, there’s a third national option, the Liberal Democrats, the most assertively pro-Remain party. However, the Lib Dems have fizzled, led by an energetic new leader, Jo Swinson, who has utterly failed to persuade the public.

If the Tories do gain their majority, Mr. Johnson could present his withdrawal bill to a compliant Parliament by Christmas. Upon exit from the EU, Britain’s dealings with its 27 former European partners won’t change immediately – a transition period lasts till the end of 2020. But by then, a long-term trade deal must have been reached. If not, Britain plunges into the no-deal abyss, which economists and emergency planners deem catastrophic, incurring shortages of food and of medical supplies. In other words, a year to avert the worst. Canada’s trade deal with the EU took seven years.

But reason has long since drained from this issue. The Brexiteers’ crazed zeal was recently displayed by Chancellor Sajid Javid, whose cabinet role puts him in charge of economic planning and the budget. During a radio interview, he denied that Brexit would weaken the economy, even though a long series of experts say it’ll stunt growth for years. “There’s been no government forecast of the deal that we’ve reached with the EU,” Mr. Javid noted, as if this were reassuring rather than sheer negligence.

The Remainers’ final hope is that the Tories fail to gain a majority, and another hung Parliament produces a coalition of Labour or the Conservatives with smaller parties that demand a second referendum as price for their support. In 2016, Leave won by 52 per cent to 48 per cent, but this may have shifted. Certainly, Brexiteers who spent the past three years bellowing about “the will of the people” are loath to discover the people’s will today. For their part, the Tories depict this general election itself as the public’s last word on leaving the EU, which is nonsense – many who fear Brexit fear Mr. Corbyn, too.

How to choose?

Illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck


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