Anxiety looms as British gird for Thursday vote
Polls tighten after terror attacks and May stumbles
LONDON | After a seven-week election campaign that veered from the boredom of staged sound bites to the trauma of two deadly attacks, Britain’s political leaders asked voters Wednesday to choose: Who is best to keep the U.K. safe and lead it out of the European Union?
Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May and opposition Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn crisscrossed the country on the final day of campaigning, trying to woo voters with rival plans for Brexit, building a fairer society and combating a terrorist threat made all too immediate by attacks in Manchester and London.
Mrs. May, whose hopes of a big victory in the snap election she called seven week ago have largely evaporated, according to polls, promised to crack down on extremism if she wins Thursday’s vote — 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,” Mrs. May said.
Mr. Corbyn, the prime beneficiary of Mrs. May’s uninspired campaign, argued that the real danger comes from Conservative cuts to police budgets.
“We won’t defeat terrorists by ripping up our basic rights and our democracy,” he said.
All 650 seats in the House of Commons are up for grabs. A party needs to win 326 seats to form a majority government, and Mrs. May’s Conservatives enjoyed a 17-seat majority in the outgoing Parliament.
Mrs. May called the snap election — three years early — in a bid to boost the Conservative majority in Parliament, which she says will strengthen Britain’s hand in divorce talks with the European Union. But the Brexit issue has taken a backseat in the election — initially to debates about how to narrow the gap between rich and poor, then by the attacks in Manchester and London.
A Conservative victory would mean continued cuts to public spending in a bid to reduce the nation’s deficit. Labor officials promise to pump millions of dollars more into education and health care and raise income tax on the highest earners.
Mr. Corbyn said Thursday’s vote offered a clear choice between “another five years of a Tory government, underfunding of services all across the U.K. … or a Labor government that invests for all, all across Britain.”
The deadly attacks in Manchester on May 22 and London on Saturday twice brought the campaign to a temporary halt — and put the threat from international terrorism front and center. As Mrs. May vowed to bring in new anti-terror measures, Mr. Corbyn criticized cuts to the police under the Conservatives, which saw the number of officers plummet by almost 20,000 between 2010 and 2016.
Mrs. May responded by assailing Mr. Corbyn’s security record. He opposed British military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, wants to scrap Britain’s nuclear arsenal and shared platforms with Irish republicans in the years when the IRA was setting off bombs in Britain.
Conservative-supporting newspapers went on the attack against Mr. Corbyn on Wednesday. The Daily Mail branded him and senior colleagues “apologists for terror,” while the Daily Express exhorted: “Vote May or we face disaster.”
But Labor has had a better campaign than many expected, with opinion polls showing a narrowing of the gap between it and the Conservatives. Mr. Corbyn, an old-school left-winger widely written off at the start of the campaign, has drawn thousands of people to upbeat rallies and energized young voters with his plans to boost public spending after years of Conservative austerity.
Liberal Democrats party leader Tim Farron, along with other candidates, made as much use as possible of the final day of campaigning before Thursday’s snap election, which now hinges on issues of security and terrorism.
Prime Minister Theresa May has seen her lead erode in the wake of two terror attacks. Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn hopes to capitalize on her recent mistakes.