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Ahead of election, British voters grapple with Brexit, division and distrust

The United Kingdom goes to the polls Thursday in what is being considered the most significant election since the end of World War II. Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson needs a clear majority in Parliament to force through a deal for a January Brexit. But as special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports, British voters have trust issues with both Johnson and Labour rival Jeremy Corbyn.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Britain goes to the polls tomorrow in what's billed as the most important general election since the end of World War II, and Brexit is at the heart of the election.

    Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson needs a clear majority in Parliament to force through a deal, which will enable Britain to leave the European Union at the end of next month.

    But, as special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports, doubts about Johnson's character and that of his main opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, are troubling British voters.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Never one to shy away from an eye-catching stunt, Boris Johnson rammed home his core pledge. He's appealing for a parliamentary majority to honor the 2016 referendum on European membership, which narrowly favored leaving the E.U.

    Against expectations, in the fall, Johnson reached a deal with the European Union. It's designed to avoid a chaotic Brexit, but he fears the election tomorrow may not yield the numbers needed to push the agreement through.

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson:

    We have just got to get Brexit done. And, you know, you're asking me to contemplate something pretty appalling, in my view. I don't see any alternative but a working majority to deliver it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Johnson's chief opponent, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, is promising the most radical socialist program for generations. Corbyn insists Johnson can't get Brexit done.

  • Jeremy Corbyn:

    That claim is a fraud on the British people. His sellout deal will be just the beginning of years of drawn-out, bogged-down negotiations and broken promises.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    If Johnson is to succeed, his party must win districts like Canterbury, southeast of London.

    For nearly 200 years, this was a Conservative stronghold. But in the referendum, the district voted to remain in the E.U. and, at the last election two years ago, the fortress fell to the Labour Party.

    Attorney Anna Firth is fighting to wrestle back control of Canterbury.

  • Anna Firth:

    What most people, the vast majority, are saying to me on the doorstep is, whether they voted leave or remain, they just want us to move on. They want the gridlock to be finished, they want the agony to be finished, they want some resolution.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The incumbent is Labour's Rosie Duffield, who believes Brexit would be disastrous.

  • Rosie Duffield:

    We're right next to Europe. We're closer to Europe than we are some English cities. And we're dependent on our relationship with Europe, for our tourist trade, for the university, for our research programs, all kinds of things. And it's really important for me to keep fighting for that.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Duffield is benefiting from the breakdown of traditional tribal allegiances. Lifelong Conservative Joe Egerton has switched sides. He complains the party no longer represents a more benevolent, tolerant conservatism.

  • Joe Egerton:

    The Conservative Party today has become the Brexit party. It is not the party I joined. It is a strongly anti-European party.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Opinion polls have consistently given Boris Johnson's Conservatives a significant lead. But Johnson is not being complacent.

    In the last few days, Johnson has been fishing for votes in traditional Labour Party constituencies that are now in play because they favor Brexit. He's promising to upgrade public services to win over people who would never normally vote Conservative.

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson:

    We have a vision of a United Kingdom. Jeremy Corbyn would divide our kingdom. And I can tell you this: We can do all of this as one-nation Conservatives, whilst not putting up your taxes.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Jeremy Corbyn's key emotional weapon is Britain's free National Health Service. Its stresses were emphasized this week with a story about a 4-year-old boy being treated on a hospital floor.

    Despite repeated denials, Corbyn has accused the Conservatives of plotting to sell off the Health Service to American big pharma companies.

  • Jeremy Corbyn:

    Boris Johnson really wants a no-deal Brexit straight into the arms of Donald Trump and a trade deal with them. And it's very clear to me that trade deal with the United States, that trade deal would put all of our public services at risk.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Political analysts like Jo Phillips believe this is the most crucial election since World War II.

  • Jo Phillips:

    I think trust is the biggest single issue in this election, above and beyond Brexit. It's one of the most divisive and bitter elections, I think, that we have ever seen in this country.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In a series of campaign videos, Labour is tugging at the heartstrings.

  • Woman:

    There's so much poverty and suffering. And our society's crumbling.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Labour is planning to re-nationalize Britain's railways, along with utilities like water and power. It's promising to bridge the gap between prosperous and poor by extracting more tax from society's upper echelons.

    But the Institute for Fiscal Studies has dismissed the Christmas gifts of both Labour and Conservative as not credible.

  • Jo Phillips:

    Jeremy Corbyn comes across as a rather avuncular, pleasant, elderly gentleman you could trust with your life.

  • Jeremy Corbyn:

    "Jeremy Corbyn isn't some kind of kindly magic grandpa. Quite the opposite in fact."


  • Jo Phillips:

    Unfortunately, I think we know that the people who are pulling his puppet strings are extremely hard-left militants.

    Boris Johnson is a showman. That's why he's attractive to very many people. He's got a good turn of phrase. He's very jolly. He's very rambunctious. He doesn't want to be held to account.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Unlike every other political leader, Johnson refused to submit to a grilling from one of British television's toughest interviewers.

    Johnson's bid for a majority is threatened by Britain's former Attorney General Dominic Grieve. He was among 21 Conservative lawmakers purged from the party for rebelling over Brexit. At his riverside constituency, Grieve is relying on voters like this academic, who was unwilling to give his surname.

  • Angus:

    You only have to go back through Mr. Johnson's, how shall I put it, very colorful career, and you will find that I'd sooner trust Al Capone.

  • Dominic Grieve:

    I'm afraid I find him completely untrustworthy. He has a long and very detailed record of telling outright lies whenever it suits him.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Jeremy Corbyn is also distrusted. He's been accused of sympathizing with terrorist groups such as the IRA and Hamas.

    Britain's chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has condemned Corbyn as unfit for high office. The Labour Party is being investigated by Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission over allegations of institutional anti-Semitism.

    One complainant from the Jewish Labour movement reportedly listed 22 examples of abuse at a party meeting, where he was called a child killer, Zio scum and a Tory Jew.

    In Johnson's district West of London, one voice encapsulated the national air of fatigue.

  • Lynne O’Leary:

    I just feel that it's probably one of the worst times ever in British politics. And we're at a situation where everybody just seems to be fighting for themselves, instead of sort of working collectively to do the best thing for the country.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Britain's voters are undoubtedly punch-drunk from politics and three-and-a-half years of waiting for Brexit.

    The big question is whether, despite his flaws, they will back Johnson sufficiently to deliver a knockout blow.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Southern England.

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