Following terrorist attacks, Britain prepares to go to the polls as race tightens

British Prime Minister Theresa May visits Simon Jersey, a business uniform supplier in the Constituency of Hyndburn on May 30, 2017, in Accrington, England. Britain goes to the polls on June 8 to elect a new Parliament in a general election.
(Leon Neal / Getty Images)

For the Conservative Party, it was supposed to be an election about who was best placed to lead the country as it embarks on the complex negotiations that will take Britain out of the European Union.

For voters, Thursday’s general election has become about far more than the stability the party’s leader, Prime Minister Theresa May, promises to deliver.

As Britons prepare to head to the polls Thursday, the Conservative Party still appears to have enough support to secure a majority in Parliament, according to recent polls. But it is unlikely to be the landslide that many were predicting seven weeks ago.

“I think that’s Theresa May’s fault,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “She wanted this to be the Brexit election but she didn’t want to talk about Brexit. As a result, other issues have intruded.”


When May called the snap election on April 18, she said it was to stamp out political infighting that risked undermining her hand in upcoming Brexit talks. She also hoped that nearly a year after the deeply divisive referendum campaign where the country voted to leave the EU by 52% to 48%, she could create unity, and she sought a strong electoral mandate to secure the best deal for Britain.

This was especially important given that she was never voted in as prime minister, but succeeded David Cameron who stepped down last year after backing the failed Remain side.

But little has gone according to plan since the election was called. Despite successfully peeling off support from the UK Independence Party, which campaigns on a staunchly anti-EU platform, her campaign style has failed to inspire. She was sharply criticized for refusing to appear in a live television debate along with the leaders of six other main parties.

The Conservatives were also forced to alter a manifesto pledge that would have changed the way people pay for social care, a move that some branded a U-turn.


“That policy was part of their offering to working-class voters,” said Anand Menon, professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College London. “But their inability to get that simple message across, that was staggering.”

By contrast, her main opponent, Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn — who never wanted the election to be about Brexit given his party’s internal divisions on the issue — has performed far better than many predicted.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
(Tim Ireland / European Pressphoto Agency)

He attracted strong crowds to his election rallies and spoke pointedly about the austerity measures May’s government has introduced, which have hit key services such as the National Health Service and education.


“Europe has never been a big issue at general elections in this country, and it was naive to think it would be this time around,” Bale said. “The bread and butter issues that people generally think about when voting — health, education, tax, spending — have emerged as key themes.”

Britain has also been rocked by three terrorist attacks in as many months. Two have occurred since the election campaign got underway: the first in Manchester where 22 concertgoers were killed when a terrorist detonated a suicide vest at the exit to an Ariana Grande show.

And more recently in the capital, three attackers drove a car over London Bridge, mowing down pedestrians, and then marched through Borough Market, stabbing diners and pub-goers enjoying their Saturday night. The death toll from that attack rose to eight on Wednesday.

Both incidents put a temporary stop to electioneering and changed the tone of the campaign. They also pushed a fierce debate around policing numbers and security to the top of the agenda and forced May to defend her record as home secretary, when she presided over a cut of 20,000 police officers.


“You would normally think that a terror attack would work unambiguously for the Conservatives but because she’s been in charge of this stuff, it has come back to haunt her,” Menon said. Analysts have doubts about the extent to which the terrorist incidents will affect the election, however, as Corbyn has also been criticized for being weak on national security and voting against anti-terrorism legislation.

In that sense, May and Corbyn have canceled themselves out, but only by merit of their failings.

“It’s been a pretty awful campaign,” Menon added. “The quality of the two main candidates has been appallingly low. This has been the election of the steadily lowered bar.”

Voters seem to agree that in many ways, no candidate is ideal.


“I think [May and Corbyn] are people that a lot of voters don’t want to vote for, but they’re the best of a bad bunch,” said Londoner Peter Alan, 44, who works in publishing. He was an undecided voter when the election was first called but has gradually migrated over to the Labor camp, which is how he plans to vote on Thursday.

“For me personally, it’s about the NHS,” he said.

London teacher Purdie Brown, 36, said she also plans to vote Labor in her west London constituency, but in reality her ideal scenario would be if no one candidate wins overall and they are forced to form a coalition.



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Boyle is a special correspondent based in London.