UK heads for general election in bid to break Brexit deadlock

By Eliza Mackintosh and Luke McGee, CNN

Updated 1:23 p.m. ET, October 30, 2019
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1:22 p.m. ET, October 30, 2019

Our live coverage has ended for the day -- see the post below for a recap of Wednesday's developments.

1:19 p.m. ET, October 30, 2019

Wednesday wrap up: main takeaways from a long day in Brexit Britain

Analysis from CNN's Luke McGee

For months, those of us who spend time in Westminster and Parliament have talked openly about the "phantom" election campaign.

It had been pretty clear ever since Johnson took office that an election was the only way out of the Brexit deadlock. This meant that every UK political party has been pretending not to be in campaign mode since summer, despite saying lots of things you might expect a hopeful to say during an election campaign.

Now that we know the election is actually happening, here are the key takeaways from today:

Boris Johnson's Conservative party is going to tell anyone who will listen that they simply want to get Brexit done, but the opposition parties have made it impossible. They didn't want to hold an election, but were out of options...

... Which sounds a little suspicious, given that they hired a campaign manager back in August and have election slogans ready to go. Notably today, we learned that they will fight the opposition Labour Party on its own turf, claiming that a Conservative government will throw money at the National Health Service.

For its part Labour is very happy to get into a fight over the NHS. Today at Prime Minister's Questions, Jeremy Corbyn repeatedly said that Johnson and co were getting ready to sell out the NHS. He was also keen to remind everyone of Johnson's chummy relationship with Donald Trump, who is not popular here in the UK.

What Labour doesn't want to do is talk about Brexit. As we saw today, Corbyn is much happier to pitch himself as the UK's only real chance for change, and better public services after nearly 10 years of Conservative austerity.

But if polls are any guide, Brexit will likely be the defining feature of this election. CNN learned earlier today that although Johnson's top aide, Dominic Cummings, will not run the campaign, he will be involved. This is significant, as Cummings had previously said he would stand down after October 31. So, Johnson, Cummings and a Labour leader unwilling to talk Brexit? We might be looking at a rerun of 2016's referendum. At least tactically.

Corbyn has Brexit problems elsewhere. Smaller opposition parties are lining up to be the parties of Remain. This boxes Corbyn in: Labour has to support a different Brexit to Johnson, but cannot support no Brexit. His party is bitterly split on the issue and coming down on either side could alienate large parts of his party.

Talking of smaller parties, Nigel Farage's Brexit Party is in a tight spot. Having boldly claimed it will stand in every seat, it is now considering contesting just a handful. CNN was leaked a message sent to all Brexit party candidates earlier today. It's fair to say, you wouldn't be terribly jazzed to have thrown your lot in with Farage and co, only to be left in the dark as to whether you will stand or not.

There is still a long way to go until December 12. But if today is anything to go by, it's going to be a very nasty, personal and bitter campaign. And it might not even solve Brexit.

12:47 p.m. ET, October 30, 2019

There's been a surge of young people registering to vote in the past 24 hours

Interesting nugget from today: according to the government's own website, registration among younger voters has surged in the past 24 hours.

While it's hard to read too much into this, the consensus among most political scientists is that this group of people is more likely to vote for pro-European parties. Take a look for yourself.

11:30 a.m. ET, October 30, 2019

State of the parties

From CNN's Luke McGee

Brexit has made a hell of a mess. British politics is less predictable than ever and, if you have followed this madness for the past three years, quite a lot of the blame lies with the governing Conservative party – who have been in power for 10 years.

Logic dictates that the Conservative Brexit mess should lead to fighting a successful election campaign being next to impossible.

But nothing is normal. The opposition parties have for three years failed to properly capitalize on Conservative weakness. The main opposition Labour party has failed to make its position on Brexit clear until very recently.

So where does this leave everyone? Election polls show the Conservatives with a healthy lead over Labour at the moment, but British politics is weird and vote share doesn't reflect how many seats a party wins in Parliament. For example, in 2015, David Cameron secured a small majority with 36.9% of the vote, but in 2017, Theresa May lost that majority with 42.4%.

10:27 a.m. ET, October 30, 2019

Elsewhere in Brexitland...

From CNN's Luke McGee

The dawning reality of a general election has created a problem for the man who Brexit might never have happened without.

Nigel Farage's Brexit Party finished in first place in what was effectively the UK's last national elections -- the European parliamentary elections. The conditions were perfect, as the vote took place back in May, two months after the UK had missed its first Brexit deadline.

When he launched the Brexit Party, Farage said he wanted to "change politics for good," and that his party would stand on a single issue: to take the UK out of the EU without a deal. Labour and the rest of the opposition were blocking Brexit, and the Conservatives, then run by Theresa May, were hopeless.

In the wake of Farage's huge victory in the European elections, he almost immediately announced plans to contest near enough every seat at the next UK general election. Candidates were regularly announced as the Brexit Party repeatedly told the public, "We are ready for a Brexit general election."

Things have changed since May. Boris Johnson, the man who led the successful Vote Leave campaign in 2016, is now the Prime Minister. He has taken a hard line on Brexit that ultimately forced the EU to renegotiate May's doomed withdrawal deal. If polls are to be believed, he is riding high and in a very strong position.

The UK's political system structurally punishes smaller parties. It is not uncommon for parties to pick up a decent chunk of the national vote but end up with no seats in Parliament.

Rumors are now circulating that the Brexit Party will switch its focus from standing in every seat to concentrating on a handful of seats that they have a decent chance on winning.

On Wednesday morning, party campaigners were sent the following message, which has been seen by CNN. "Message from HQ... IMPORTANT. Please go DARK on social media. DO NOT respond to any questions about where we are standing, what the strategy or plan is from now. Things will be made clear to all PPCs very soon. #changepoliticsforgood."

Focusing on a small selection of seats might be a sensible strategy, but it could look to be a humiliating turnaround for a party that has talked a huge game since the spring.

9:05 a.m. ET, October 30, 2019

Tributes to John Bercow at his last PMQs

Analysis by CNN's Luke McGee

John Bercow is presiding over his final weekly session of Prime Minister's Questions, during which both Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson paid tribute to the Speaker of the House.

Johnson said that Bercow had "peppered every part of the chamber" with his "own thoughts and opinions like some tennis ball machine," delivering "unreturnable" vollies and rallies.

Corbyn praised how Bercow stood up for Parliament and changed some of its "strange customs" while promoting diversity.

Bercow's tenure as speaker has been controversial. Brexiteers believe that he has acted in cahoots with Remainers and aided their attempts to thwart Brexit at any cost. Bercow himself defends his impartiality, but his behavior has won him fans among the Europhile community.

There has also been a darker side to Bercow's time in the chair. He has been accused of bullying and having a clear bias on Brexit. This wasn't helped when British media found pictures of his car with a sticker saying "Bollocks to Brexit." Bercow claims the sticker was his wife's.

Bercow has been a divisive figure across the political spectrum, and many in Westminster believe he has abused his position in the Speaker's chair to build his own profile. As Robert Colvile, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies think tank, recently pointed out on Twitter, Bercow has spoken in the House far more times than any other recent Speaker.

8:33 a.m. ET, October 30, 2019

A "Trump Trade deal"?

Analysis from CNN's Luke McGee

The US President has already entered the UK's election campaign. During Prime Minister's Questions, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Boris Johnson of putting the UK's National Health Service at risk by pushing to strike a "Trump trade deal" which would allow US firms to win NHS contracts.

Gearing up for what will no doubt be a feature of his many stump speeches, Corbyn said: "Isn't the truth that this government is preparing to sell out our NHS?"

The NHS, it's often said, is the closest thing the UK has to a religion. Painting Johnson as a man willing to sell it out to a US President that is widely disliked in the UK could be a very effective campaign strategy. Especially when you consider that Trump will be in London shortly before the election takes place.

8:21 a.m. ET, October 30, 2019

Prime Minister's Questions underway

The weekly session of Prime Minister's Questions is underway in the House of Commons.

Parliament is expected to dissolve just after midnight next Wednesday, meaning that this is the final PMQs before the election campaign officially gets underway.

However, the worst-kept secret in Westminster has been that both main parties are on election footing. Which might explain why leaders Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are for once now arguing about domestic policy more than Brexit.

7:59 a.m. ET, October 30, 2019

What role will Boris Johnson's top aide, Dominic Cummings, play in the election?

Analysis from CNN's Luke McGee

Boris Johnson has been planning an election campaign for months. Ever since taking over from Theresa May as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party, Johnson has been setting himself up as the man fighting to get Brexit done, while opposition lawmakers were hellbent on thwarting him at every opportunity.

The man driving this "People versus Parliament" narrative was Johnson’s most senior advisor, Dominic Cummings.

Cummings masterminded the victorious Vote Leave campaign in 2016, most famously coming up with the campaign slogan, “Take Back Control” and the widely-debunked claim that being an EU member state cost the UK £350 million a week.

He is a deeply divisive and controversial figure. His aggressive and unorthodox way of doing politics has left many in Westminster questioning Johnson’s judgment. Cummings is a man, after all, currently held in contempt of Parliament for refusing to give evidence to a Parliamentary select committee.

He claims to have never been a member of any political party, including the Conservative party, over which he has such a tight grip. His brutal style goes against the gentle sensibilities of many Conservative members (think village greens and warm beer rather than accusing your opponents of “surrender” and "betrayal" at every turn).

However, Cummings will not be officially running the election campaign, CNN has been told. Soon after taking office, Johnson appointed Isaac Levido, formerly an advisor to the Australian Liberal Party, to run the Conservatives' political operations – including elections. Downing Street sources say that had always been Johnson’s plan and that Cummings was never going to run an election campaign.

Shortly after Cummings took his job, he told government advisors that he would stand down after Brexit was done. He was due to have an operation, he told aides, which he had already postponed in order to "get Brexit done" by the original October 31 deadline.

Even though that deadline has been broken, Downing Street sources have told CNN that Cummings has not indicated any intention of leaving, and will continue to work closely with them. “That was in the context of Brexit being done by then,” one government advisor told CNN.

While he might not officially be in charge of the Conservative’s campaign, it’s pretty clear that the most controversial man in Westminster will be working very closely with Johnson over the next few weeks. “He’s Dom, still around, and will be involved in (the) campaign,” a Downing Street source told CNN.

All of which means team Johnson will continue to be as tight-knit as it has been for months. He might not be running the show, but the Conservatives' election campaign will clearly be created in his image. And in the words of one former Conservative party advisor, “His political judgment is brilliant... everyone who is on the opposing side should be astonishingly frightened.”

That might be true. But the opponents of Cummings and Johnson can take heart in one thing: This election is only happening because of the failure of the Prime Minister – and that of his most senior aide – to get Brexit done by October 31. It could yet be that the decision to run an aggressive election campaign will blow up in their faces and result in them being booted out of Downing Street.