British PM poised to win vote but lose majority as Brexit looms
Prime Minister Theresa May is poised to win Britain’s snap election but lose her parliamentary majority, a shock exit poll suggested Thursday, in what would be a major blow for her leadership as Brexit talks loom.
The poll showed May’s Conservatives on course to fall from 330 to 314 seats, short of an overall majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, after a troubled campaign overshadowed by two deadly terror attacks.
The main opposition Labour party, led by leftist Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile is projected to increase its number of seats from 229 to 266, according to the joint exit poll by Sky, the BBC and ITV news.
The pound immediately tumbled after the poll.
The election came at a pivotal time in British history as it negotiates a complicated exit from the European Union, the first country to leave the six-decade-old bloc.
The pro-European Liberal Democrats, who have campaigned for a second referendum that could keep Britain in the EU, were forecast to increase their seats from nine to 14.
In Scotland, where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has called for independence to avoid a “hard Brexit”, her Scottish National Party was tipped to lose seats but still dominate.
All parties urged caution at the shock poll, with the final results not likely until early on Friday morning.
The forecast Conservative victory is far smaller than suggested by opinion polls when she called the snap election at a time when her popularity was running high.
Analysts had blamed the decline on May’s botched announcement of a reform in funding for elderly care, a strong grassroots campaign by Corbyn and the terror attacks, which have led to scrutiny of her time as interior minister before becoming prime minister.
“It seems clear her gamble has not paid off,” said Paula Surridge, politics lecturer at Bristol University.
– ‘Bloody difficult woman’ –
May has said victory in the election will strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations, expected to start on June 19, and officials in Brussels are hopeful it will allow her to make compromises in the talks.
She has warned however that Britain could withdraw with no deal in place if the conditions imposed by the EU — particularly a divorce bill of up to 100 billion euros ($112 billion) — are deemed too tough.
Following last year’s Brexit referendum, the 60-year-old began the formal two-year process of leaving the EU on March 29.
Aside from the money, another early obstacle in the talks will be the status of EU citizens living in Britain and Britons living elsewhere in the EU.
May sharpened her rhetoric on the campaign trail and boasted she would be a “bloody difficult woman” in Brussels, saying that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.
But if she loses her majority as predicted, the vicar’s daughter will face questions over her decision to call the vote three years later — particular after a campaign performance which critics judged “robotic”.
The Conservatives currently have a majority of just 17 seats, won by May’s predecessor David Cameron in the 2015 general election, and some early forecasts had predicted a triple-digit majority.
“If these figures are correct, it will be difficult to govern,” said Wyn Grant, politics professor at the University of Warwick.
– Terror in the campaign –
The campaign was interrupted twice by terrorism.
A suicide bomber blew himself up outside a pop concert in Manchester on May 22, killing 22 people.
Less than two weeks later, three assailants wearing fake suicide vests mowed down pedestrians and launched a stabbing rampage around London Bridge, killing eight people before being shot dead by police.
Just days before the election was called, a lone assailant also ran over pedestrians and stabbed a police officer to death outside the British parliament on March 22, killing five people.
The attacks have led to scrutiny over May’s time as interior minister from 2010 to 2016, particularly since it emerged that some of the attackers had been known to police and security services.
Labour seized on radical cuts in police numbers implemented as part of a Conservative austerity programme, although May insisted that she had protected funding for counter-terrorism.
– ‘Getting along with Brexit’ –
At a polling station in Hackney in east London, a Labour stronghold, 41-year-old Simon Bolton said he had favoured May because he was confident that she would get the “best possible deal for Brexit”.
But voters who supported the Labour party said they were concerned about the state of the National Health Service (NHS) — a major campaign issue.
“The Tories have just been devastating” for the NHS because of budget cuts, said Ben Thomas Smetton, a 28-year-old doctor voting in a building near the scene of last Saturday’s terror attack.
In Halifax in northern England, a former textile hub held by Labour that voted for Brexit, 43-year-old Nathan Stott spoke of his disillusionment with Labour.
“I would vote Labour if they had a strong leader. It’s as simple as that,” said Stott, speaking in a seat which is a key target for the Conservatives.
Corbyn “is so far left he’s unvotable. So the alternative is you have to go Theresa May”.
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