By DANICA KIRKA and JILL LAWLESS
LONDON (AP) — Britain voted Thursday in an election that started out as an attempt by Prime Minister Theresa May to increase her party’s majority in Parliament ahead of Brexit negotiations but was upended by terror attacks in Manchester and London during the campaign’s closing days.
Voters are choosing all 650 members of the House of Commons after May called the election three years ahead of schedule at a time when her party was well ahead in the polls. But the attacks have forced her to defend the government’s record on terrorism, and this week she promised that if she wins she will crack down on extremism — even at the expense of human rights.
Rachel Sheard, who was casting her vote near the site of Saturday’s attack in London, said the election had not gone as expected — and that it certainly wasn’t about Brexit.
“I don’t think that’s in the hearts and minds of Londoners at the minute, (not) nearly as much as security is,” said Sheard, 22. “It was very scary on Saturday.”
Eight people were killed Saturday near London Bridge when three men drove a van into pedestrians then randomly stabbed revelers in an area filled with bars and restaurants. Two weeks earlier, a suicide bomber killed 22 people as they were leaving a concert in Manchester, and five people died during at attack near Parliament on March 22.
The attacks have left Britain on high alert. The official threat level is “severe,” the second-highest rating, indicating an attack is “highly likely.”
When May called the election seven weeks ago, she was seeking to capitalize on opinion polls showing that her Conservatives had a wide lead over the opposition Labour Party. She became prime minister through a Conservative Party leadership contest when her predecessor, David Cameron, resigned after voters backed leaving the EU. The time seemed right to seek her own mandate from the British people.
She went into the election untested in a national campaign, but with a reputation for quiet competence. May’s mantra throughout the campaign was that she was the person to provide “strong and stable” leadership.
But the campaign did not go to plan.
May was criticized for a lackluster campaign and for a plan to force elderly people to pay more for their care, a proposal her opponents dubbed the “dementia tax.” As the polls suggested a tightening race, pollsters spoke less often of a landslide and raised the possibility that May’s majority would be eroded.
After the terror attacks in Manchester and London, which twice forced the suspension of campaigning, security became the focus of the debate. May said this week that she would consider rewriting human rights legislation if it gets in the way of tackling extremism.
But in her final message to voters, May tried to put the focus back on Brexit.
“I can only build that better country and get the right deal in Brussels with the support of the British people,” she said. “So whoever you have voted for in the past, if that is the future you want then vote Conservative today and we can all go forward together.”
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who built his reputation as a left-wing activist, focused his campaign on ending the years of austerity that have followed the global financial crisis. He called for increased spending on the National Health Service, schools and police, as well as the nationalization of railroads and water utilities.
After the terror attacks, Corbyn suggested the Conservatives had undermined Britain’s security by cutting the number of police on the streets.
The Labour leader closed out his campaign by telling a rally he had reshaped British politics.
“As we prepare for government, we have already changed the debate and given people hope,” he said. “Hope that it doesn’t have to be like this; that inequality can be tackled; that austerity can be ended; that you can stand up to the elites and the cynics. This is the new center ground.”
While the gap between the two parties has narrowed, virtually all polls suggest the Conservatives will retain control of Parliament. A high turnout is seen as Labour’s best hope of eroding the Conservative majority.
The Conservatives held 330 seats in the last Parliament, compared with 220 for Labour, 54 for the Scottish National Party and nine for the Liberal Democrats.
Rain is forecast through much of the country, but it is unlikely to be severe. Turnout is not expected to be affected.
“We live in a country where a bit of drizzle is commonplace,” said John Curtice, an election expert at Strathclyde University.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (0600GMT to 2100GMT).
Kevin Scott contributed to this story.