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U.K. PM Seeks Stronger Brexit Mandate, Larger Majority As Britons Go To Polls

  • Ron Synovitz

Voters in Britain are going to the polls in a general election that will determine who guides the country through its Brexit negotiations on leaving the European Union -- and how strong their mandate will be in the talks.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time (0600 GMT/UTC) on June 8 at some 40,000 polling stations across the country, with counting kicking off once voting ends at 10 p.m.

Political analysts say the vote could also have an impact on whether Scotland will conduct another referendum on seeking independence from the United Kingdom.

Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party is largely expected to retain and expand its 17-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons -- but not as much as she had hoped.

In April, when she called for the early elections, analysts suggested the prime minister could increase the size of the Conservative parliamentary majority to more than 100 seats and claim a stronger popular mandate in the Brexit negotiations.

At the time, opinion polls suggested the Conservatives held a lead of 20 percentage points over their next closest rival, the opposition Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.

But all opinion polls have shown that the Conservatives' lead steadily decreased during the month of May after the election pledges of each party were published -- with a strong rise in support for Labour candidates.

By June 4, freshly published polls showing the largest lead for the Conservatives suggested May's party would win about 43 percent of the vote compared to 36 or 37 percent for Labour.

British Prime Minister Theresa May on the campaign trail last month.
British Prime Minister Theresa May on the campaign trail last month.

"I'm very proud of our campaign," Corbyn said as he voted in the north London neighborhood of Islington, grinning and giving a thumbs-up to reporters and party workers.

May smiled but did not speak to journalists as she and her husband voted in the village of Sonning on the River Thames east of London.

Opinion surveys suggesting the tightest race, conducted by the firm Survation for ITV television and the Mail On Sunday newspaper, gave the Conservatives a lead of just 1 percentage point over Labour.

But those opinion surveys were conducted before the June 3 terrorist attack on London by Islamic militants who killed seven people and injured 48 others.

That attack led to an increased focus on national security as an election issue -- and was expected to benefit May, who is seen as the most trusted leader on fighting terrorism, maintaining good relations with NATO allies, and leading the Brexit negotiations.

Irreversible Brexit

When the election campaign began in April, the leadership of Britain's Brexit negotiating team was seen as the central issue.

May argued that the opposition were obstructing "the will of the British people" and that she wanted to increase the size of the Conservative parliamentary majority in order to strengthen her negotiating position on Brexit.

Those negotiations will have an impact on Britain's employment, wages, housing prices, interest rates, immigration, trade levels, defense and security, public finances, and public services.

But the general elections are not expected to cause Britain to reverse its plans to leave the European Union.

Analysts agree that a Conservative victory means Britain will certainly leave the EU -- whether a deal is reached in the Brexit negotiations or not. In fact, the prime minister's often repeated election campaign line has been that "no deal is better than a bad deal."

Labour has taken a less antagonistic tone against the EU than the Conservatives.

Nevertheless, Corbyn has pledged that Labour will not reverse the Brexit course if his party wins the June 8 vote.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (file photo)
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (file photo)

Andrew Duff, a former deputy in the European Parliament from the United Kingdom and a visiting fellow at the Brussels-based European Policy Center, says a victory for Labour is improbable and would lead to uncertainties in the Brexit negotiations.

"In the unlikely event that Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister, nobody would know what to do, in London or Brussels," Duff told RFE/RL. "We must presume a return of a Conservative government with a workable majority of loyalist Tory MPs who will ensure the passage of an EU secession treaty under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty."

"The plan the prime minister had was to have early elections in order to entrench the decision from last year's Brexit referendum," Duff said. "But in practice, Britain's future prospects have not been properly explored during this campaign. So we're not much clearer about the quality of a Brexit."

"Theresa May is going to increase the majority of [Conservative] Tories in the House of Commons, but she isn't going to be able to reach the majority she had hoped for when she called for these early elections," Duff added. "She also could find that she is trapped inside a more rightwing and nationalist conservative House of Commons, which would make the complicated and fraught Article 50 negotiations extremely problematic."

Anti-Brexit Bloc

Two other main parties in the June 8 British election -- the Scottish National Party (SNP) led by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the Liberal Democrat Party led by Tim Farron, both oppose plans to leave the EU and the European single market.

But opinion polls in early June suggested neither would receive more than 10 percent of the vote.

Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, told RFE/RL that he finds it "extremely difficult to envision a scenario in the short term" where Britain's decision to leave the EU would be reversed.

By and large, Lehne, told RFE/RL, Prime Minister May will be in a better position to negotiate on a Brexit.

Most opinion polls suggest Sturgeon's SNP will win about 50 seats in Britain's House of Commons -- a little less the 56 out of 59 Scottish seats that it won in the 2015 general election.

Scotish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon (file photo)
Scotish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon (file photo)

Farron's Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping to reestablish themselves as the third largest political party in the British parliament and become the voice for the anti-Brexit opposition.

Lehne told RFE/RL that an anti-Brexit bloc would become most empowered if the Conservatives fail to win an outright parliamentary majority -- creating the possibility for a Labour-led minority coalition with the SNP and the Liberal Democrats.

But he said that is a "highly unlikely" scenario.

Opinion polls suggest that UKIP, the right-wing nationalist party that set the agenda during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, is likely to have less support than it received during Britain's last general elections in 2015.

UKIP currently does not have any deputies in the House of Commons. But despite the opinion poll projections, UKIP leader Paul Nuttall was predicting on June 7 that his party would win seats in Parliament's lower house as a result of the June 8 vote.

Scottish Independence

Political analysts say strong support for the SNP could increase the chances that Scotland will conduct its own referendum on independence from the United Kingdom as London moves the Brexit process forward.

The pro-independence SNP lost Scotland's 2014 independence referendum when 55 percent of voters said they wanted to remain a part of the United Kingdom.

A key argument for the "remain" camp in the Scottish independence referendum was the need to remain in the EU.

In Britain's June 2016 referendum on EU membership, 62 percent of Scottish voters chose to remain in the EU -- bolstering the arguments of those who advocate Scottish independence.

Sturgeon thinks Scotland ultimately should have another referendum on independence, saying during the election campaign that "Scotland must have a choice about our future, a choice between following the U.K. down the Brexit path or becoming an independent country."

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