British election outcome increasingly uncertain

Mrs May (right) and Mr Corbyn (left)
Mrs May (right) and Mr Corbyn (left)PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE

Conservatives getting worried as average of polls shows surge in support for Labour

LONDON • When Britain's June 8 snap election was announced just a few weeks ago, the outcome seemed a done deal.

Prime Minister Theresa May would extend her Conservative government's majority in Parliament - a move that would help her push through some of the trickier parts of the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

For Mr Jeremy Corbyn, the divisive and at times embattled leftist leader of Britain's main opposition party, things looked grim.

Yet, as voting day looms, those fears are looking less and less likely. Instead, the Conservatives are starting to get worried.

An average of polls collated by groups like Britain Elects shows a clear surge in support for Labour.

This unexpected scenario has prompted two big questions to hang over British politics for the past week or so.

First, what could have happened to make Britons rethink their opinion of Mr Corbyn, previously derided as "unelectable" by his critics? And secondly, could the polls just be wrong?

Mrs May often cut an awkward figure at campaign events and faced a backlash for her refusal to take part in debates with other parties' candidates... Mr Corbyn has been able to portray himself as an anti-establishment underdog, proffering populist spending increases, and he has largely avoided major mistakes.

When Mrs May announced the snap election in mid-April, analysts suggested that she was seeking a mandate to lead the country personally through its exit from the European Union (EU).

The Prime Minister, who had campaigned against Brexit, had come to lead Britain after former prime minister David Cameron stepped down after last year's referendum.

This would be her first major test with national voters. Though she had previously suggested she would not call a snap vote, Mrs May seems to have looked at Labour's low polling numbers and thought that now was an opportune time to call an election.

It is an understandable impulse: A big win would not only give her a larger majority in Parliament, but it also potentially would give her another five years until the next election - during which time she could focus on the complicated business of leaving the EU.

But things weren't so simple. While the Prime Minister attempted a "presidential-style" campaign that focused on her "strong and stable leadership" slogan, Mrs May often cut an awkward figure at campaign events and faced a backlash for her refusal to take part in debates with other parties' candidates.

At the same time, Mr Corbyn has been able to portray himself as an anti-establishment underdog, proffering populist spending increases, and he has largely avoided major mistakes.

The final television event of Britain's general election campaign saw both Mrs May and Mr Corbyn take a pummelling from angry voters.

Mrs May has refused to debate Mr Corbyn directly, and so the BBC's Question Time featured the two leaders consecutively, with the Prime Minister going first.

There was no gentle warming up, with the opening questioner accusing her of "broken promises and backtracking".

It was the toughest audience Mrs May has faced in a campaign where her appearances have been tightly controlled, and it got a rise out of the Prime Minister.

"I had the balls to call an election," she retorted at one point, using distinctly unparliamentary language.

For Mr Corbyn, the questioning started more gently, but he became irritable when repeatedly asked about whether he would be prepared to use nuclear weapons.

"I think we have discussed this at some length," he complained.

Mr Corbyn wants to get rid of Britain's Trident weapons system.

An audience member told him: "I'd rather have it and not use it than not have it at all ."

"Do you want to comment on that?" the host asked the Labour leader. Mr Corbyn shook his head.

His stance won support from some. One woman asked why so many of her fellow audience members seemed so keen to kill millions of people.

Earlier, Mrs May had her own awkward moments, challenged by audience members about spending on health.

A nurse complained his pay had fallen 14 per cent in real terms. "Don't tell us it's a pay rise," he said.

Mrs May was unapologetic. "There isn't a magic money tree we can shake," she said.

WASHINGTON POST, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline 'British election outcome increasingly uncertain'. Print Edition | Subscribe