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UK election: Britain to decide today between PM Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn

Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn offer vastly different visions of what shape they want Britain’s exit from the European Union to take.

world Updated: Jun 08, 2017 07:55 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
UK,UK Elections,Theresa May
A combination of pictures shows British Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Theresa May (L) speaking at a press conference during a European Summit at the EU headquarters in Brussels on March 9, 2017 and Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (R) speaking on the fourth day of the annual Labour Party conference in Liverpool, north west England on September 28, 2016.(AFP File Photos)

Britons will vote on Thursday in a general election darkened by jihadist attacks in two cities though a poll showed Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May extending her lead over Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The Prime Minister stunned Britain on April 18 when she announced a snap election, hoping to transform a massive opinion-poll lead over Brexit into an equally huge majority in the House of Commons, where she holds a slim 17-seat advantage in the 650-member legislature.

May is fighting to push her message that she is a “strong and stable” leader compared with Corbyn, able to fight Britain’s corner in Brussels, where formal Brexit talks are due to start on June 19.

May has also promised to crack down on extremism if she wins -- even if that means watering down human rights legislation.

“We are seeing the terrorist threat changing, we are seeing it evolve and we need to respond to that,” May said.

Corbyn said the real danger comes from Conservative cuts to police budgets.

“We won’t defeat terrorists by ripping up our basic rights and our democracy,” Corbyn said.

An upbeat Corbyn said the party’s chances had been underestimated, as he promised to reverse the cuts rolled out under the Conservatives.

“The choice is another five years of a Tory government, underfunding of services all across the UK, including here in Scotland, or a Labour government that invests for all, all across Britain,” he told supporters in Glasgow.

In mid-April, a massive win for the Conservatives and May was assumed. Few believed Corbyn would pose any challenge to May’s juggernaut – the only point of interest was how big a majority it would be.

Three things have since then have changed perceptions: terror attacks in Manchester and London, and the remarkable rise of Corbyn, who was supposed to be a disaster and unfit for politics in the age of television.

A poll published in the Guardian newspaper said May’s lead over the opposition has widened to 12 percentage points. The Conservatives’ lead increased from 11 percentage points in the previous ICM/Guardian poll published on June 5.

ICM said it now put support for the Conservatives at 46 percent, up one percentage point from the previous poll, and Labour was unchanged on 34 percent.

Rise of Corbyn

Still, the last few weeks have seen Corbyn shrewdly change the terms of campaign discourse beyond Brexit, to more sensitive issues such as health, education, social care – and the most effective of all, the rise in the number of ‘food banks’ in the country under Tory rule. Food banks are where people who cannot afford to buy food go for free food).

Labour’s manifesto took the challenge further by pitching it ‘For the many. Not the Few’; the few, Corbyn repeatedly pointed out, were the rich and the very rich, for whom the Conservative government had reduced taxes, ignoring the plight of the masses of poor.

The manifesto struck a chord, particularly the promise to re-nationalise public services, to borrow more to increase investment and abolish tuition fees in higher education (currently met by student loans). Young voters who face over 40,000 pounds of debt on completing degree courses have flocked to him.

The more Corbyn appeared on television, the more people liked him: sobre, reasonable, focussed on cutting poverty, refusing to indulge in personal attacks, and with a sense of humour. He deftly swatted away criticism about his record on Irish nationalists, Hamas and opposition to the Trident nuclear missile.

May on the back foot

In contrast, May has been on the backfoot, having to defend her record on security after the two terror attacks – she was the Home secretary for six years before becoming the prime minister in 2016. She has also been forced to explain her record on other sensitive issues.

The real story of Thursday’s election is thus not the Conservative party winning – that remains the most expected outcome, despite Labour’s resurgence. The key point is the margin of victory: anything less than a big increase will be seen as her personal defeat and the election gamble backfiring.

May had a slender majority of six seats in the last parliament: Conservatives had 331 MPs in a House of Commons with 650 seats – 326 is the majority mark. Every Tory leaflet highlights this fact and how a large majority is needed to get a good Brexit deal.

“If I lose just six seats on Thursday, my government’s majority in the House of Commons will be gone, and our country will face the chaos of a hung parliament”, May cautions voters in a series of letters posted to them by name.

If Labour emerges as the single largest party and goes on to form a minority government with support from the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and others, calling the mid-term election will spell nothing less than an historic blunder for May – the next election was not due before 2020.

May has had a hard time explaining to voters what she really means by “Brexit means Brexit” and “no deal is better than a bad deal”, with none the wiser after long answers. Selling the “Making a success of Brexit” line has also been tough, when nearly half of UK did not want it.

An oft-ignored fact in the cut-and-thrust of campaigning is the weariness about another round of voting across the United Kingdom – which some say is now a dis-United Kingdom after the 52/48 per cent ‘Out/In EU’ vote in the June 2016 EU referendum.

Thursday is the fourth major round of voting (not counting local elections) in three years, after the Scotland independence referendum in 2014, the general election of 2015 and the EU referendum of 2016. But Corbyn’s rise appears to have helped shed some of that weariness and cynicism among voters.

As European leaders look on in some amusement at the UK going through an election on the issue of Brexit, many insist this is an unnecessary election, one that may deepen – not resolve – divisions on an issue that is supposed to determine the way the UK sees itself in future outside the EU and the way the world sees its place on the international stage.

(With agency inputs)

First Published: Jun 08, 2017 00:29 IST