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UK election campaign hots up on Brexit day that never was

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London (AFP)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought Thursday to blame the opposition Labour leader for his failure to deliver Brexit, as both men stepped up campaigning on the day Britain had been due to leave the EU.

Johnson is riding high in opinion polls ahead of the December 12 election but risks a backlash over failing to keep his "do or die" pledge to take Britain out of the European Union on October 31.

"Today should have been the day that Brexit was delivered and we finally left the EU," the Conservative leader said in a statement.

"Despite the great new deal I agreed with the EU, Jeremy Corbyn refused to allow that to happen -- insisting upon more dither, more delay and more uncertainty for families and business."

Pro-EU campaigners breathed a sigh of relief that Britain had been given a stay of execution to avoid a Halloween Brexit nightmare, after stark predictions of chaos and disruption.

Johnson had vowed he would rather be "dead in a ditch" than tolerate another extension to the tortuous process, which began in 2016 after a knife-edge public referendum.

But he was forced to ask the EU to delay Brexit until January 31 after MPs in the House of Commons refused to approve the withdrawal terms he had struck with Brussels.

Labour leader Corbyn laid the blame squarely at Johnson's door. "The failure to do so is his and his alone," he wrote on Twitter.

- 'Born-to-rule' Tories -

The fourth new Brexit deadline of January 31 will inevitably loom large in campaigning for what is the third general election in four years and the first in December since 1923.

But Corbyn is seeking to shift the debate onto more domestic subjects such as health and social care, and education.

More than three years after the referendum that has increasingly divided Britain, Labour remains split over Brexit.

Its promise of a new public vote within six months of election has not been matched with details on how it would campaign.

Ahead of an election rally in London, veteran socialist Corbyn attacked Johnson's "born-to-rule Conservatives" who he said were only interested in protecting "the privileged few".

"This election is a once-in-a-generation chance to transform our country, take on the vested interests holding people back and ensure that no community is left behind," he said.

Business leaders have claimed Labour's renationalisation plans of certain key industries, including the railways, would cost at least £196 billion ($254 billion, 227 billion euros).

Johnson on Wednesday called the plan "pointless" and said it could trigger "economic catastrophe", pledging to "invest massively" in the state-run health service and education.

A National Institute of Economic and Social Research study, published on Wednesday, however, suggested Johnson's Brexit deal could leave Britain £70 billion worse off in 10 years.

- Outgoing MPs blame abuse -

Almost 60 MPs have announced they will not stand in the coming election, including many of them on the more moderate side of Johnson's Conservatives.

Among them is cabinet minister Nicky Morgan, who partly blamed abuse she has received for her decision to step down after nine years in parliament.

Divisions over Brexit have seen heightened rhetoric on all sides, while death threats against lawmakers and abuse on social media have risen in recent years.

Morgan described the "clear impact on my family and the other sacrifices involved in, and the abuse for, doing the job of a modern MP".

Long-standing Conservative MP Caroline Spelman, who is also retiring, warned of a "wild west of internet abuse".

"Sexually charged rhetoric has been prevalent in the online abuse of female MPs, with threats to rape us and referring to us by our genitalia," she wrote for The Times newspaper.

"It is therefore not surprising that so many good female colleagues have decided to stand down at this election."

An average of 86 MPs stood down in each general election between 1979 and 2015, according to Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

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