(CN) — Under cold gray skies, British voters are casting their ballots in a crucial election that could lead the United Kingdom to break away from the European Union and enter uncharted waters or deliver a hung Parliament and more Brexit uncertainty.
Already there were long lines an many polling stations when voting opened at 7 a.m. Thursday, which is rare for U.K. elections. The lines reflected just how important this election is for a nation that is deeply divided over its future.
The first December election in nearly a century was called to break a deadlock in the fractured House of Commons over the U.K.’s withdrawal from the EU.
Opinion polls showed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in the lead and potentially winning enough seats in Parliament to obtain a substantial majority. If he wins a majority, Johnson has vowed to take the U.K. out of the EU by the end of January.
But Labour, the main center-left opposition party, was narrowing the gap in the latest polls, raising the prospect that the newly elected House of Commons may be so fragmented as to be ungovernable or even set the unlikely stage in which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is installed in Downing Street at the head of a minority government pushing for a second Brexit referendum.
Polling stations will close at 10 p.m. and results are to be announced throughout the night. A key exit poll will be released once the polls close and it will likely provide an early and accurate picture of what the final results will be.
The campaign’s fiercest battles have been in England’s Midlands and North and in Wales. These former industrial regions traditionally have been a stronghold for Labour — its so-called “red wall” — but many Labour voters in these working-class districts turned against the EU and the U.K.’s membership in the bloc.
This has become a major problem for Labour, whose leaders are largely in favor of staying in the EU or remaining closely aligned with Europe. Johnson’s Tories, who have become much more pro-Brexit under his leadership, see their best chances of winning a majority by picking off Labour seats in pro-Brexit cities and towns such as Doncaster, Workington, Wakefield, Grimbsy and Wrexham.
Both Johnson and Corbyn have spent a lot of time in these contested districts. On Wednesday, Johnson began his last day of campaigning in Yorkshire in northern England.
But Johnson’s strategy to win Labour voters in these working-class areas struggling with job losses and reductions in public services may have been seriously damaged by the prime minister’s own missteps.
In October, as the election campaign got underway, Northern England was hit by severe floods but Johnson showed up late and was viewed as downplaying the severity of the catastrophe.
This week Johnson was stung by another misstep when he came across as lacking empathy for a sick 4-year-old forced to sleep on a hospital floor in Leeds. When he was shown a photograph of the boy by a television journalist, Johnson barely looked at the photo and bizarrely took the smartphone the journalist was holding to show him the photo and put it in his pocket.
Johnson’s response sparked outrage and the incident drew attention to the U.K.’s struggling national health care system, which is a central theme in this campaign.
Labour has blasted Conservatives for leaving the National Health Service underfunded after years of budget cuts and claims the Tories plan to privatize the NHS in a post-Brexit free-trade agreement with the United States.
These incidents, and others, have helped to create an image of Johnson as a private-schooled, out-of-touch Tory politician and dented his image as a great election campaigner with the human touch capable of bringing working-class voters into the Conservative Party.
Still, Johnson and his Tories command a lead and seem likely to win the majority they are seeking. Throughout the campaign, Johnson has kept his message simple and said that only he can get the U.K. out of the EU.
Matt Cole, a historian and expert in British party politics at the University of Birmingham, said the Tories have a healthy lead and should obtain a majority.
He said in a telephone interview with Courthouse News that the Tories are hoping to pick up seats in the North and Midlands, in districts where a majority of people voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
He said the Tories may win seats “on the back of Labour’s Brexit betrayal.”
Corbyn has pledged to hold a second referendum on Brexit if he wins the election, but he has been criticized for saying he would remain neutral on the question of whether he would like the U.K. to remain in the EU or leave the bloc.
Cole doubted the Tories will be able to pick up the 40 seats they need to obtain a comfortable majority in the House in areas once considered Labour strongholds.
“There is a strong tribal commitment to Labour in those areas,” he said.
The Tories also face losing seats in Scotland and in Southern England to the Liberal Democrats, which want to keep the U.K. in the EU. Voting is also taking place in Northern Ireland.
Still, polls suggest the Tories will march to victory.
YouGov, a polling firm in London, issued its last snapshot on Tuesday and said the Conservatives were on track to claim a small majority.
It said the Tories were likely to win 339 seats, 22 more than they took in 2017, the last general election, and obtain 43% of the vote. If they win that many seats, YouGov said it will be the Conservatives’ best performance since 1987.
Labour was forecast to lose 31 seats, down from 262 in 2017 to 231, and pick up about 34% of the vote, YouGov said.
Under Corbyn, Labour has turned left and pledged to spend lavishly on public services, renationalize some sectors of the economy such as utilities, and raise taxes on the super-rich.
“For every pound the Conservatives are willing to spend, the Labour Party is willing to spend 28,” Cole said. “The Labour Party has a supercharged public expenditure program.
“It’s more socialist than it has been since 1983 or possibly 1945,” he said.
The Tories have taken a very different approach and have not proposed new legislation, he said.
Cole noted that the word “legislation” does not appear in the Tory campaign manifesto.
“The Tory party is about Brexit,” he said. “‘Get Brexit done,’” as Johnson’s campaign slogan says.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)