(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.