UK voters go to the polls to choose new government to resolve Brexit impasse

A woman leaves a polling station at a ticket office of Amberley Museum during the general election in Amberley, Britain, December 12, 2019. (Reuters)
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Updated 13 December 2019

UK voters go to the polls to choose new government to resolve Brexit impasse

  • Johnson’s Conservatives need just nine more seats for a majority
  • Corbyn is proposing to renegotiate softer exit terms with Brussels

LONDON: Britons who have endured more than three years of wrangling over their country’s messy divorce from the European Union cast ballots Thursday in an election billed as a way out of the Brexit stalemate in this deeply divided nation.

On a dank, gray day with outbreaks of blustery rain, voters went to polling stations in schools, community centers, pubs and town halls after a five-week campaign rife with mudslinging and misinformation.

The contest pits Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who says he will take Britain out of the European Union by Jan. 31, against the opposition Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, who has promised another referendum on Brexit.

All 650 seats in the House of Commons are up for grabs in the election that is being held more than two years ahead of schedule. Opinion polls suggest the Conservatives have a lead over Labour. But all the parties are nervous about the verdict of a volatile electorate fed up after years of Brexit wrangling.

At a fish market in the eastern England port of Grimsby, seafood company owner Nathan Godley summed up the hopes of many that — one way or another — the election would provide a pathway to a resolution of Brexit.

“I think we all got a bit weary of the politicians over the last few years really, and I think having a government with a majority to give them the clout to actually do what they want is a good thing,” he said.

Johnson voted near the prime minister's Downing Street residence in London, accompanied by his dog, Dilyn. Corbyn was greeted by supporters and an activist dressed as Elmo from “Sesame Street”as he arrived to vote in his north London constituency.

The two parties are offering voters starkly different visions of the future. Johnson campaigned relentlessly on a promise to “Get Brexit done” — and promised a modest increase in public spending — while Labour vowed to tax the rich, nationalize industries such as railroads and water companies and give everyone in the country free internet access.

On Brexit, Labour says it will negotiate a new divorce deal with the EU and then offer voters the choice of leaving the 28-nation bloc on those terms or remaining.

The prime minister pushed for this early election to try to break a logjam in Parliament that stalled approval of his Brexit agreement. He says if he wins a majority, he will get Parliament to ratify his “oven-ready” divorce deal with the EU and take Britain out of the bloc as scheduled on Jan. 31.

Recent surveys suggest the Conservatives' lead may have narrowed in the final days of campaigning. While Labour is unlikely to get an outright majority, smaller pro-EU opposition parties hope to win enough seats so they can team up to block Johnson’s Brexit plans.

The Conservatives have focused much energy on trying to win in a “red wall” of working-class towns in central and northern England that have elected Labour lawmakers for decades but also voted strongly in 2016 to leave the EU. Polls suggest the plan may be working. The Conservatives also have been helped by the Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage, which decided at the last minute not to contest 317 Conservative-held seats to avoid splitting the pro-Brexit vote.

Labour, which is largely but ambiguously pro-EU, faces competition for anti-Brexit voters from the centrist Liberal Democrats, the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, and the Greens.

Labour has tried to focus the campaign on the plight of the National Health Service, a deeply respected institution that has struggled to meet rising demand after nine years of austerity under Conservative-led governments.

One of the campaign's defining images was a photo of a sick 4-year-old boy sleeping on a hospital floor because no beds were available. Johnson's initial failure to even look at the photo put him on the defensive, portraying him as insensitive to the child's plight.

The photo, initially published by the Yorkshire Evening Post, swept across social media like a firestorm in the final days of the campaign.

For many voters, the election offers an unpalatable choice. Both Johnson and Corbyn have personal approval ratings in negative territory, and both have been dogged by questions about their character.

Johnson has been confronted by his past broken promises, lies and offensive statements, from calling the children of single mothers “ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate” to comparing Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to "letter boxes."

In Uxbridge, the suburban London seat that Johnson represents in Parliament, Stefan Hay said he was voting for the prime minister despite his flaws.

“At the end of the day, whether you like him or not, with all of his eccentricities, I think he has leadership ability and I think he is the best man for the job, simple as that," Hay said.

Corbyn has been accused of allowing anti-Semitism to spread within the party. The 70-year-old left-winger is portrayed by opponents as an aging Marxist with unsavory past associations with Hamas and the IRA.

But many voters said they were backing Labour because of its stance on social issues.

“If the Tories win, this country will just fall apart,” said Eleanor Sawbridge Burton, a freelance writer in London. “It will really hit climate change and the NHS. It feels a bit hopeless.”

With so much at stake, political parties have pushed the boundaries of truth, transparency and reality during five weeks of campaigning.

Social media platforms were a critical battleground, as the parties bombarded voters with messages — many of them misleading.

The Conservatives, in particular, were criticized for using underhanded tactics on social media. The party circulated a doctored video that made it look as if an opposition leader had been stumped when asked about his position on Brexit. Then during a TV debate, the party re-branded its press office Twitter account as a fact-checking service.

Labour also sought to co-opt the role of independent fact-checker, rolling out a website called The Insider, which urged voters to “trust the facts.”

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, said the digital campaign showed that the political landscape had changed.

“You don't get more establishment than the British Conservative Party," Nielsen said. “If that is what they see as fit and proper, we must confront the fact that this is the new normal.''


US lawsuit against Qatari emir’s brother to be re-filed in Massachusetts court

Updated 28 January 2020

US lawsuit against Qatari emir’s brother to be re-filed in Massachusetts court

  • The move was intended to force Sheikh Khaled, who had been avoiding being served, to acknowledge and accept legal service
  • Two former contractors alleged they were denied wages and threatened by Sheikh Khaled after they refused his orders to kill two people

The attorney for two former contractors suing Sheikh Khaled Al-Thani, the brother of the Emir of Qatar, has asked a Florida Federal Court judge to dismiss their lawsuit so they can re-file the claims before a different Federal court in Massachusetts.

The former contractors alleged they were denied wages and threatened by Sheikh Khaled after they refused his orders to kill two people. The original lawsuit had Sheikh Khaled as the principle defendant but on Nov. 5, 2019 it was expanded to include race car company Al-Anabi Racing USA LLC, which Sheikh Khaled owns.

The move was intended to force Sheikh Khaled, who had been avoiding being served, to acknowledge and accept legal service.

Failing to serve a defendant or a defendant’s business assets can result in the lawsuit being thrown out by a judge in the American judicial system.

The expansion of the lawsuit worked. After ignoring the lawsuit for more than seven months, lawyers for both Sheikh Khaled and Al-Anabi Racing USA LLC, filed responses. They asked the Federal Court on Jan. 2 this year to dismiss the Pittard/Allende lawsuit, arguing Florida lacked Federal jurisdiction over the case.

According to Bloomberg Markets, Al-Anabi Racing USA LLC, is based in Duxbury, Massachusetts, although it has an office in Florida.

“After the Pittard case complaint was amended, several individuals bravely stepped forward to share their stories and experiences with the defendants in the Pittard case,” said Rebecca Castaneda, the attorney for security professional Matthew Pittard and paramedic Matthew Allende, who are seeking $33 million in damages.

“In light of the information that they have provided, and the new plaintiffs’ claims and causes of actions against the defendants and others, we have requested that the Pittard case be dismissed from the Middle District of Florida.

“The cases of Matthew Pittard and Matthew Allende will be supplemented with additional legal claims and information that has been obtained and re-filed in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the District of Massachusetts.”

Sheikh Khaled’s attorney, Alejandro Soto, of the Florida law firm Fridman Fels and Soto, PLLC, argued in their motion to dismiss in January that Sheikh Khaled had no legal presence in Florida and that Florida’s Federal courts had no jurisdiction over his actions.

“While the amended complaint invokes Florida law, it otherwise fails to allege any facts supporting Sheikh Khaled’s contacts with the state,” Soto said in his Jan. 2 dismissal demand.

“By all accounts — including plaintiffs’— Sheikh Khaled is a citizen of the state of Qatar whose domicile and primary residence — both during the time period alleged in the amended complaint and now — have always been in Qatar.

“Moreover, the amended complaint does not allege a single fact suggesting that any of the alleged conduct giving rise to this case occurred in or arose from Sheikh Khaled’s contacts with Florida. Indeed, the only alleged connection that Florida has with this case is plaintiff Matthew Pittard’s alleged residence in it.”

Attorneys for Al-Anabi Racing LLC, Armando Rosquete and Javier A. Reyes of the Bell Rosquete Reyes Esteban, PLLC law firm, argued that Sheikh Khaled was not employed by Al-Anabi Racing USA LLC and claimed Florida lacked jurisdiction to hear the case.

“Contrary to this settled jurisdictional jurisprudence, plaintiffs failed to plead any facts to establish personal jurisdiction or even provide a factual framework under which this court could analyse personal jurisdiction,” Reyes and Rosquete said in their Jan. 2 dismissal demand.

“Indeed, other than an unsupported conclusory allegation in a single paragraph, plaintiffs include no jurisdictional facts that connect Al-Anabi to Florida. Plaintiffs do not allege that they were injured in Florida, nor do they allege any facts regarding Al-Anabi’s contacts with the state.

“The amended complaint is devoid of facts that could — even when analysed in the light most favorable to plaintiffs — show that the purported injury or other conduct alleged even occurred in Florida,” Reyes and Rosquete added.

Attorneys Reyes, Rosquete and Soto all failed to respond to repeated inquiries for comment on their dismissal filings.

Pittard and Allende alleged in the lawsuit, originally filed on July 23, 2019 before Federal Judge Thomas P. Barber, that Sheikh Khaled ordered them to kill two individuals who posted negative and embarrassing comments about the sheikh on social media.

According to Castaneda, Sheikh Khaled ordered the killing of a Los Angeles-based drug dealer who was trying to blackmail the sheikh with claims he had compromising photos and videos of the sheikh.

“We don’t know the veracity of the drug dealer’s claims, but the sheikh took them seriously and he wanted Pittard and Allende to kill the blackmailer,” Castaneda said.

In another case, Castaneda said Sheikh Khaled allegedly ordered the two security contractors to murder a Moroccan woman who was a friend of the sheikh’s wife. Castaneda said Sheikh Khaled feared the woman was feeding embarrassing information about him to a Saudi national at a time when his brother, Emir Al-Thani, and Qatar were in an international row with Saudi Arabia and three other Arab countries.

Pittard and Allende allege they were threatened at gunpoint by an angry Sheikh Khaled when they refused his orders in September 2017 to murder the two individuals he suspected had sullied his social reputation. The lawsuit claims Sheikh Khaled's threats against Pittard and Allende continued to escalate.