- - Sunday, June 4, 2017

LONDON — As British voters prepare to head to the polls on Thursday, an election that was supposed to be a cakewalk for Prime Minister Theresa May and her Tories has turned into a slog across a political minefield.

The prime minister called the surprise snap election in April in hopes of beefing up the Conservative Party’s slender majority in parliament, burnishing her credentials as a strong leader and giving her more leverage ahead of tough negotiations on leaving the European Union. A bonus: An overwhelming win would deal a crushing blow to the reeling Labor Party opposition and its beleaguered leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

But seven weeks have proved an eternity in British politics, and a combination of bad luck and bad campaign decisions have suddenly put Mrs. May’s expected rout in jeopardy. After consistently running 10 to 15 percentage points ahead of Labor, the Conservatives have been jolted by polls showing a much tighter contest.

An election in which hardly anything has gone as the pundits predicted was upended once again over the weekend. Campaigning was suspended a second time after terrorist attacks in London killed at least seven and wounded dozens of others.

British officials said Sunday that the vote would go ahead as scheduled, but the surging concerns about which party is best positioned to handle national security issues has added one more variable to an already scrambled political equation.

Mrs. May, a former home secretary with a reputation for being tough on crime, was once thought to be the clear beneficiary of rising voter concerns about national security, but that did not prove the case last month in the wake of a suicide bombing at a Manchester concert and may not help her at the polls this time around.

A YouGov survey released Wednesday suggested that Labor was surging and the Conservatives’ 17-seat majority in Parliament could be cut or even wiped out entirely. In a sign that the poll wasn’t an outlier, an Ipsos Mori survey released Friday — before the latest London attacks — gave the Conservatives just a 5-point lead of 45 percent to 40 percent, a swing of 10 points in Labor’s direction compared with two weeks earlier.

“It is clear that on contact with the voters, Mrs. May is not going down well and she is losing ground in particular amongst middle-aged voters and female voters,” Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos MORI, told the Reuters news agency.

Aside from the embarrassment to the prime minister, who has been on the job for only 11 months, a cliffhanger vote could undermine the Conservatives’ hopes of shaping the agenda and set off a period of political turmoil as parties jostle to form coalitions with a workable number of seats to take power.

Mrs. May “wanted to go for a strong majority because the polling suggested it would be easy,” said Tim Oliver, an analyst at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “But no one foresaw that her campaigning would be so weak.”

If he manages to seize victory from the jaws of defeat, Mr. Corbyn has hinted that he might form an alliance with the Scottish Nationalist Party, which is pushing for another independence referendum for Scotland even though 55 percent of Scottish voters opted to remain in the United Kingdom just three years ago.

As her lead shrinks, Mrs. May has turned to talking up the dangers of a Labor victory. She warned that it could lead to a “coalition of chaos.”

That message seems to have resonated with Tory supporters.

“A Scottish Nationalist-Labor coalition frightens people,” said Tory voter Robin Holden, a 71-year-old retired clothing catalog company executive from Harrogate in North Yorkshire. “I think expectations for May were far too high and unreasonable at the start of the campaign. But the Tories will still win. I think they’ll increase their majority.”

By contrast, expectations for Mr. Corbyn were rock-bottom when the campaign began. An old-line leftist, he was saddled with the image of a weak leader who couldn’t even command the support of many fellow Labor members in Parliament. Opinion polls show much of the electorate likes many of his social welfare proposals, but Labor voters struggle to accept him as their prime minister.

Mr. Corbyn’s proposals to renationalize Britain’s aging rail network and scrap university tuition fees have won him kudos among his liberal base. But he has come under withering criticism for his perceived weakness as an academic, bumbling standard-bearer.

“I’m voting Labor despite its leader,” said Rose Glennerster, a 25-year-old doctor from Brighton. “I agree with a lot of Corbyn’s policies, but I think he isn’t a strong leader and doesn’t inspire confidence.”

Analysts said the election would come down to whether young voters such as Ms. Glennerster — who are much more likely to vote Labor — turn out on Thursday. Pollsters usually assume that young people are less likely to turn out, but the latest YouGov poll anticipated a higher-than-normal youth vote.

“That’s one reason why there’s a divergence in the Tory lead,” said Ben Walker, founder of the poll aggregation service Britain Elects.

May’s missteps

Labor has been creeping up in polls since the election was announced. On April 11, the party was expected to win just a quarter of the seats in the House of Commons, a figure that has since grown to more than a third in recent days.

Mrs. May, pundits say, bears much of the blame for her party’s lackluster showing. An election campaign that was conceived to demonstrate the prime minister’s leadership skills has been marred by what the British call “own goals” committed by the Tory standard-bearer.

Early on, the prime minister was forced to make an embarrassing U-turn on one of her key tax policies, which would have clawed back the cost of end-of-life health care from the sale of the deceased’s house. Mr. Corbyn and others devastatingly dubbed the policy the “dementia tax,” and Mrs. May was forced to water down the policy in reaction to a public backlash.

Mrs. May’s leadership image was also dinged when Mr. Corbyn was largely seen to have held his own in 90 minutes of questioning last week during their only head-to-head clash. The prime minister took shots for skipping a second television debate with Mr. Corbyn and the leaders of other parties Wednesday.

“How dare you call a general election and run away from the debate,” Liberal Democratic leader Tim Farron said at one point. He told voters, “You’re not worth Theresa May’s time. Don’t give her yours.”

Mrs. May defended herself by saying she was more concerned with the issues than opportunities for sound bites. “Jeremy Corbyn seems to be paying far more attention to how many appearances on TV he’s doing, and he ought to be paying a little more attention to Brexit negotiations,” she said.

Still, analysts say the episode raised further doubts about Mrs. May’s political skills and her ability as a campaigner.

The prime minister has also been talking about the wrong issues on the campaign trail, Mr. Oliver said.

“If you look back at the Brexit referendum, much of it was actually about immigration, the National Health Service and a dislike of the establishment,” he said. “She has forgotten [the vote] was about those issues and has just been banging on about Brexit. But Labor has been talking about what some might say are ‘populist’ things like hospitals, transport and other nice things that everyone wants.”

The terrorist attack that killed 22 concertgoers in Manchester brought a temporary pause to campaigning and a possible reprieve for the Conservatives, said Mr. Walker, the pollster. “If Manchester hadn’t happened, the focus would still have been on the U-turn,” he said. “That was an open goal for Labor.”

Mr. Corbyn still faces a steep climb. He also has been criticized in the past for his willingness to engage with groups such as Hamas and the Irish Republican Army. Even his supporters are concerned.

“There are a few things in his past that make me nervous,” said Ms. Glennerster. “For example, his support of the IRA and its terrorism.”

The terrorist attacks, meanwhile, have hardened the resolve of Tory voters. “Manchester has brought national security to the forefront of our minds and firmed up support,” said Mr. Holden.

Still, with just days until the vote, Conservatives are struggling to recapture the high ground they occupied at the start of the campaign. With Brexit negotiations with the EU to begin in earnest soon, some even are arguing that Mrs. May may get a perverse benefit if she keeps the prime minister’s post with a reduced majority in Parliament.

“If she’s only got a small majority, then Europe might have to concede [on controversial issues] because they’ll know she can’t force things through [Parliament] like she could with a large majority,” Mr. Oliver said.

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