The UK election: What you need to know

The UK election: What you need to know
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Voters in Britain will go to the polls on Thursday following three deadly terrorist attacks since March, most recently in London last weekend. 

In the aftermath of the attack on the British capital, President Trump sharply criticized the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.


Trump’s intervention drew the ire of politicians across the British political spectrum: Prime Minister Theresa May, a Conservative, came to the defense of Khan, a member of the rival Labour Party.

Trump’s intervention has also forced May to defend her perceived closeness to him. It’s not the first time the U.S. president has made life difficult for his British counterpart.

A week after Trump's inauguration, May became the first foreign leader to visit the president in the White House. But within hours of her departure, he announced the first version of his controversial travel ban. The timing was a big embarrassment at home for May.

Beyond Trump’s role, what's going on in the election?


The basics

The United Kingdom held its last general election just two years ago, with the Conservatives — also known as the Tories — emerging as the winners. 

The Tories had been the major party in a coalition government since 2010, ruling alongside the much smaller Liberal Democrats.

The 2015 result allowed them to go it alone, albeit with a modest working majority of 17 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons.


What happened next?

Brexit, basically.

The 2016 referendum in which U.K. voters opted to leave the European Union sent the biggest shockwave in decades through the British political system.

David Cameron, who had led the Tories to their 2015 win, resigned as prime minister in the aftermath. He had called the referendum and campaigned hard to stay in the EU. The voters’ rebuke ended his political career.

The Conservative Party then elected May as its leader, making her the nation’s second female prime minister after Margaret Thatcher.

Like Cameron, May had supported staying in the EU — but, in her case, with no great enthusiasm. After the referendum, she shifted her stance to one of insistence that the voters’ wishes be respected.


Why did she call a new election?

First, the 2015 election victory belonged to Cameron, not her. In theory, at least, a win on Thursday would bolster her authority.

Second, she argued that a bigger majority would give her greater leverage as she negotiates the specifics of her nation’s departure from the EU. 

Third — and perhaps most importantly — she fancied her chances.

Labour, the main opposition party, elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader after the 2015 election. Corbyn is the most left-wing leader Labour has had in more than 30 years. Elected on a wave of grassroots enthusiasm, he has had to endure constant expressions of dissent from his more centrist colleagues in Parliament.

Even some in his own party feared an apocalyptic meltdown at the polls when the campaign began.


What's going to happen?

The Tories’ once-huge polling lead has eroded to a startling extent since the beginning of the campaign.

In polling averages collated by the Daily Telegraph, the Conservative lead has fallen from around 18 points when the election was called in mid-April to around 6 points.

Labour and Corbyn are desperately hoping that this momentum can see them spring a surprise on Thursday. 

That said, Americans were reminded last November of the dangers of placing too much faith in polling, and the perils are even greater for Britons because of an unusual amount of volatility.

Major polls just within the last week have pegged the Conservative lead at anywhere between 1 point and 12 points.


Can Labour win?

Almost certainly not, at least in the sense of becoming the largest party.

It would be an enormous success for the party, and for Corbyn personally, to deprive the Conservatives of an overall majority. Remember, May called the election in the strong belief that she could win a landslide.

The Tories will almost certainly still be the largest party when the results come in. But they have a disadvantage when it comes to forming a government. The smaller nationalist parties — most notably the powerful Scottish Nationalists — would have a very strong preference for a Labour-led coalition over enabling the extension of Conservative rule.

Labour supporters should not get too excited, though. If the Tories perform at the upper end of their range of expectations, they could end up with a thumping majority of almost 100 seats.

Labour under Corbyn is also even more heavily dependent than usual on youth turnout — and young people in Britain, as in the U.S., are among the least reliable groups when it comes to showing up on Election Day.


How will the terror attack in London affect the election?

As a general rule, the Conservatives are favored when national security becomes a key issue, similar to Republicans in the U.S.

However, the picture is complicated because the party has pushed a series of austerity measures since coming to power in 2010 — and those have included significant reductions in the number of police officers. 

Total police strength in England and Wales has fallen by about 17 percent, or by about 20,000 officers in absolute terms, since 2010. 

Labour has seized on those numbers to suggest that Tory cuts have made the nation less safe.


How big a factor is Trump? 

Trump is deeply unpopular in Britain. One poll in March gave him an approval rating of just 18 percent.

His intervention after the recent attack has also made May’s earlier offer of a state visit to the U.K. a political hot-button issue again. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, on Monday tweeted that May should withdraw the offer, accusing Trump of “insulting our national values.”

Still, it’s implausible that many British voters will cast ballots based on their views of the American president. They have their own issues to think about.


Anything else?

Yes, the Conservatives could be aided by an apparent collapse in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), previously led by Trump friend Nigel Farage.

UKIP has in ways been a victim of its own success: The vote for Brexit was an endorsement of its fierce Euroskepticism but has left it without any clear purpose.

UKIP became a force in part because it siphoned off Conservative voters. Those voters might well return to their natural political home on Thursday.


When will we know the result?

Polls close at 5 p.m. U.S. Eastern time, but British elections are conducted by paper ballot so counting takes time.

Some crucial seats should begin announcing results around 8 p.m. ET. Barring an exceptionally close outcome, the overall result should be apparent by midnight at the latest.