UK Leadership Contest Advances, Amid Growing Hostility Among Voters

By Kevin McCandless | June 20, 2019 | 11:42pm EDT
Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt participate in a BBC Conservative leadership debate on June 18. (Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images)

London ( – With two men left in the contest to become Britain’s next prime minister, the eventual winner will be leading a country in which voters have increasingly come to despise those with different views, according to two recent surveys.

On Thursday, the race to succeed Theresa May as leader of the ruling Conservative Party – and therefore prime minister – was winnowed down to a former foreign secretary and the current one, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.

Through a series of ballots, Tory MPs reduced the original group of ten candidates to the remaining two. All Conservative Party members will now vote for one of the two, with Johnson believed to be the heavy favorite.

May resigned earlier this month after repeated failures to get parliament to ratify an interim withdrawal agreement with the European Union.

Britain was originally set to leave the E.U. at the end of March, a deadline that had already been pushed back twice after lawmakers declined to ratify a negotiated Brexit deal.

The current deadline is now in October, but many observers feel that many of the same issues that stymied May, such as whether or not Britain stays in a customs union with the E.U., will hinder her successor too.

Two recent polls have found that rancor between those who want to leave the E.U. and those who want to stay in the 28-member union has seeped into other areas of life, to what one researcher called “alarming levels.”

In late May, a poll of British adults by the firm Opinium found that 66 percent of respondents felt frustration towards people who voted for parties they didn’t like. Half of them felt “anger” while a slightly smaller proportion described their feelings as ones “disgust” and “contempt.”

According to the poll, those feelings of hostility equally affected those who voted to “leave” the E.U. and those who voted to “remain.”

Another poll of adults released earlier this month by BritainThinks, an international consulting firm, found that 72 percent of respondents expect the country to become even more divided over the next year.

In addition, 73 percent felt that “the U.K. is currently seen as a laughing stock by the rest of the world.”

Prof. Michael Bruter of the London School of Economics, which commissioned the Opinium poll, said his research group was seeing “alarming levels of electoral hostility” in the U.K.

“A worrying proportion of citizens think the country’s electoral atmosphere has become poisonous,” he said. “To make things worse, they expect the future to bring ever more profound hatred between segments of the population.”

MPs have publicly reported an increase in death threats since the Brexit drama began – in some cases, at the rate of one a day. In March, a deputy speaker of the House of Commons advised legislators to travel home in groups to avoid abuse.

At the end of 2018, Lucy Harris, a “leave” supporter in the London area, founded Leavers of Britain, a combination social club and activist group for people who shared her beliefs on need to get Britain out of the E.U.

Harris said Wednesday she has encountered outright hostility from people who wanted to remain in the E.U.

She said that in her work with the group, which now how several chapters across the nation, people would relay to her experiences even worse than hers. Some spoke of having been frozen out at work, with others saying they had been denied promotions because of their stance.

Harris said part of the problem is that people have become wrapped up in both their political identities and their values.

“It becomes like an insult if you question either one of them,” she said.

In May, Harris was elected as a member of the European Parliament for Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party.

Britain is stuck in political limbo right now, she said.

“Until the Brexit debate has been resolved, it’s going to get worse and worse and worse.”

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