UK election: the polls, the issues, the candidates

Why isn’t Brexit a big issue? Why is Corbyn polling so strongly? Could May lose?

Why is Britain going to the polls next week?

The next election was not due until May 2020 and Theresa May needed a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons to bring it forward by three years. She said she needed a fresh mandate and a bigger majority to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations with the European Union. And she claimed that opposition parties and the House of Lords were threatening to obstruct legislation needed to take Britain out of the EU.

In fact, the Conservatives have faced little parliamentary opposition over Brexit. But when May made the election announcement in May, polls showed the Conservatives more than 20 points ahead of Labour, pointing to a landslide victory.

Winning a fresh mandate would also allow May to abandon some of David Cameron’s 2015 manifesto commitments and put her stamp on the government.

And if she wins next week, she will not have to go to the country again until 2022, three years after Britain leaves the EU. This could take some pressure off the negotiations and allow for a transitional period to ease the adjustment of leaving.


Has Brexit dominated the campaign?

It has hardly figured at all. May started the campaign promising to provide “strong and stable leadership” for Brexit. But she has said little about her approach to the negotiations or the shape of the deal she hopes to secure, beyond repeating that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

The Conservatives put May at the centre of the campaign, framing the election as a choice between her leadership qualities and those of Jeremy Corbyn. Labour has avoided talking about Brexit for much of the campaign, partly because the party is divided on the issue and because most outgoing Labour MPs represented seats which voted to leave the EU.

The Liberal Democrats hoped to win the support of diehard Remain voters with their promise of a referendum on the final Brexit deal, but the strategy has not shown much sign of success.

What is at stake for Theresa May?

Everything. She made herself the central plank of her party’s campaign, with merchandise bearing her name in huge letters and that of the party almost invisible. This meant that a landslide victory would be a powerful personal mandate, binding dozens of new MPs in loyalty to the prime minister.

But she has run a calamitous campaign, the defining moment of which was her screeching U-turn over a key manifesto commitment on how the old should pay for social care. In a single move, she trashed her image of strength and stability and has been on the defensive ever since.

If the Conservatives return with a majority of more than 100, all this campaign drama will be forgotten quickly. But if the majority is much smaller, the prime minister will be blamed, and her authority over her own party will start to evaporate.

Is this Jeremy Corbyn’s last roll of the dice?

Most of his MPs would like to think so but his allies argue that, if Labour wins a bigger share of the vote than it did in 2015 under Ed Miliband, Corbyn will have performed well. Miliband won just 30.4 per cent of the vote, and most polls put Labour a few points ahead of that. Labour had 229 seats before the election and Corbyn's allies would regard holding 200 as a good enough result for him to stay on as leader.

A number of challengers are limbering up but none will move immediately after the election. They will wait for the trade unions to make the first move in any attempt to persuade Corbyn to step aside.

But if Labour does not win the election and Corbyn refuses to go, he will face a challenge.

Will the latest polls cheer him up?

Yes, the polls have tightened dramatically in recent weeks, with a YouGov poll this week putting the Conservatives just three points ahead of Labour. Corbyn’s own popularity has risen too, although he still lags well behind May as the best choice for prime minister in national polls.

Corbyn can claim some credit for Labour’s improvement in the polls, not least because his easy, relaxed campaigning style has contrasted favourably with May’s uptight demeanour.

And Labour’s manifesto, which was too left-wing for many of the party’s MPs, has been popular among voters. A promise to scrap third-level tuition fees has been especially popular with young voters, who are backing Labour by a margin of two to one.

Corbyn’s problem is that young voters tend to be less likely than older ones to show up on polling day. He must hope that the unusual level of enthusiasm he has generated in the young will motivate them to defy precedent and go out and vote next week.

What happened to the Lib Dems and Ukip?

The Liberal Democrats were expected to be one of the success stories of this election, with pundits predicting that they would increase their seats from nine to 20 or 30. The party positioned itself as the voice of the 48 per cent who voted to remain in the EU last year, with an uncompromising approach to Brexit aimed at overturning the referendum decision.

The strategy fizzled out within the first few days of the campaign as it became clear that Brexit was not the main focus for voters. With the Conservatives focusing on leadership and Labour on economic justice, the Liberal Democrats' message on Europe got lost.

Party leader Tim Farron lacks charisma, and polls suggest that, although the Liberal Democrats could pick up a couple of seats, they could also lose some, including Farron's.

Ukip's vote started collapsing in last month's local elections, when they won just one seat, and the party looks set to be wiped out next week. Paul Nuttall is a less effective leader than Nigel Farage but Ukip's biggest problem is that, when Britain voted to leave the EU, success robbed the party of a purpose.

Most of Ukip’s voters look set to vote Conservative, reuniting the British right after almost 20 years and boosting May’s chances of victory.

What does the election mean for Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland elects 18 MPs, although Sinn Féin, which won four in 2015, does not take its seats at Westminster. Although one or two seats could change hands next week, a dramatic change in representation seems unlikely.

The election could have an impact on Northern Ireland, however, if the Conservatives return with a much bigger majority. The narrow majority won by Cameron in 2015 propelled the Conservatives into a tacit agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party at Westminster. A bigger majority would make such an arrangement unnecessary.

And Scotland? Could it lead to another referendum?

The Scottish National Party's (SNP) extraordinary haul of 56 out of Scotland's 59 seats in 2015 is unlikely to be repeated next week. Two of the party's MPs lost the whip during the last parliament due to scandals and became Independents. But the biggest threat to the SNP comes from a resurgent Scottish Conservative Party under Ruth Davidson.

A poll in the Herald on Friday suggested that the Conservatives could increase their Scottish seats from one to eight, toppling a number of high-profile figures in the SNP, including deputy leader Angus Roberston. The SNP have tried to avoid talking about independence during this campaign but the Conservatives want to speak of little else. They hope to consolidate the anti-independence vote behind Davidson, who opposes the SNP's plan to hold a second independence referendum.

A strong showing for the Conservatives would still leave the SNP with the overwhelming majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats but it will make a second independence referendum a little less likely.

Could Theresa May lose the election?

Yes, but she probably won’t. Despite Labour’s poll surge, every poll still has the Conservatives ahead, and none has put May’s party below 42 per cent since the campaign started. The Conservatives won 99 more seats than Labour in 2015, so it would have to suffer heavy losses for Labour to become the biggest party at Westminster.

Ukip’s collapse helps the Conservatives, because most of the eurosceptic party’s voters are expected to back May and in 45 seats, Labour’s majority is less than two thirds of the vote Ukip won in 2015. And the Liberal Democrats, who were expected to regain many of the seats they lost to the Conservatives last time, are now seen as a threat in only a handful of places.

May’s problem is that early talk of a landslide means that even a comfortable majority of 40 or 50 will leave some Conservatives feeling disappointed – or even mutinous.