Britain is going to the polls for the third time in just over two years on Thursday, for a snap election called by Prime Minister Theresa May in a bid to strengthen her mandate during the upcoming Brexit negotiations.
Speaking outside Downing Street late last month, May said divisions among the parties in Parliament "will risk [the U.K.'s] ability to make a success of Brexit and... cause damaging uncertainty" to the country. "So we need a general election and we need one now, because we have at this moment a one-off chance to get this done while the European Union agrees its negotiating position and before the detailed talks begin," she added.
Initially after May's announcement, a Conservative Party win felt like an inevitability. But after a series of Tory blunders and U-turns, along with security fears triggered by recent terror attacks in Manchester and London, the result has become far less predictable. Here's a guide to the who's, what's, and why's of the June 8 vote:
Who are the major candidates?
Conservative Party: Theresa May
The center-right party is led by former Home Secretary Theresa May, who took over from David Cameron after he stepped down in the wake of the Brexit vote last summer. When May called the general election in April — despite ruling out a snap vote at least seven times — it came as a shock, even among ministers within her own party.
May's well-drilled campaign message has been that only a "strong and stable" Conservative government can successfully negotiate Britain's exit from the European Union. In her campaign literature, there is little mention of the "Conservative Party." Instead, the focus has been on "Theresa May's team," and some of her parliamentary candidates in marginal seats have even referred to themselves as "Theresa May’s local candidates."
After running what the Financial Times described as "one of the poorest election campaigns by an incumbent prime minister in recent memory," over the past few days the 60-year-old vicar's daughter has seen her personal ratings drop to their lowest level since she became Prime Minister.
Labour Party: Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn, 68, has served as the center-left Labour Party's leader since September 2015 after spending 30 years on the back benches. He had to be persuaded to stand as leader, telling the Guardian shortly before the 2015 contest: "We decided somebody should put their hat in the ring in order to promote that debate. And, unfortunately, it’s my hat in the ring."
Veteran socialist Corbyn is particularly popular among younger voters, but less so with his own party. Senior party figures attempted to unseat him through a second leadership election in September, but Corbyn won with 61.8% of vote. Throughout his time in politics, Corbyn has devoted himself to causes including nuclear disarmament, Palestinian solidarity, animal rights, gay rights and Irish republicanism — the latter being a source of contention in this election (more on that later).
Although May still commands a lead over Corbyn, he has seen his ratings increase over the past few days. He has recently been endorsed by a number of celebrities including Lily Allen and Russell Brand (and in the U.S., by Lena Dunham, Danny DeVito and Rob Delaney). Corbyn also has the support of the U.K.'s grime scene.
Liberal Democrats: Tim Farron
Tim Farron became the leader of the Liberal Democrats in July 2015. He was one of the first MPs to urge Ministers to take in refugees during the refugee crisis and voted against the 2010 rise in university tuition fees, which he described as "the poll tax of our generation."
The 47-year-old "found God" when he was 18 years old and speaks openly about his Christian faith, something that has been used against him at times during the election campaign. Farron abstained in a Commons gay marriage vote in 2013, a decision he has since said he regrets, and has been repeatedly called up on regarding a comment he made that implied gay marriage was a sin in an interview two years ago. He has since said that he does not believe that being gay is a sin and is proud of the Liberal Democrats' record on LGBT rights.
Having been all but wiped out in the 2015 election, the Lib Dems plotted a comeback built on the support of anti-Brexit voters. However, polls suggest the Liberal Democrats will gain barely any seats at all on June 8.
The other parties running in the U.K.'s election include the left-wing, environmental Green Party, led by Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley; the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by Paul Nuttall; and the center-left Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), led by Nicola Sturgeon.
What do the polls say?
Shortly after the election was called, the Conservatives looked set to be on course for a landslide victory, with May's party holding a 20-point lead over Labour (according to the Financial Times' tally of polls). But over the ensuing weeks the gap between the Tories and Labour has narrowed, and a May 25 YouGov poll suggested Labour had slashed the Conservatives’ lead to just five points.
YouGov's research also showed the Conservatives could lose 20 seats and Labour could gain 30, which might result in a hung Parliament. "It's hard to overstate what a disaster that would be for the Conservative Party or 'Tories,'" TIME's Mark Leftly wrote late last month. "May would then have to enter a difficult coalition with a third party that wanted a less severe Brexit or try and run the country by minority government."
Although the Conservatives have undoubtedly lost ground in the campaign, Labour still looks like it will weather significant losses in the Midlands and northern England, the FT reports. Current polls are suggesting that the Conservatives will receive 44% of the vote share, Labour 37%, the Lib Dems 8%, UKIP 4%, the SNPs 2% and the Green Party 1%.
How has the election been affected by the recent terrorist attacks?
Security has become a major issue in the wake of recent fatal terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. In a Downing Street speech Sunday morning following the most recent London attack, May called for a shakeup in counter-extremism and counter-terrorism efforts, and for greater Internet regulation of online spaces where extremists gather.
However, her government has come under fire over cuts to the police and the intelligence agencies, despite May and Home Secretary Amber Rudd insisting that both are “well resourced." May was asked at least five times about statistics showing that the number of armed police is lower now than it was in 2010, when she was appointed home secretary. But she dodged the accusations and instead attacked Corbyn, the Guardian reported at the time. This response may have contributed to the Conservatives' dip in the polls.
Following the attacks, Corbyn repeated a promise to reverse the Conservative's cuts and accused May of trying to “protect the public on the cheap” by reducing police ranks by 20,000. However, the Labour leader has been accused of being soft on terrorism in the past and it's uncertain whether voters will trust that he is the right person to tackle these tragic attacks on home turf.
Have there been any controversial moments?
Yes. May and Corbyn, in particular, have come under fire for very different reasons over the past few weeks.
May was widely criticized after she refused to turn up to a major television debate, instead sending Rudd just 48 hours after the death of her father. During the event, Farron tore into May for her no-show, staring at the camera and saying: "Where do you think Theresa May is tonight? Take a look out of your window — she might be out there sizing up your house to pay for social care."
May has also been accused of blocking the media from accessing her campaign events. She was slammed for "hiding" from voters after a visit she made in Aberdeenshire was allegedly listed as a child's birthday party. "It’s been so secretive, they are supposed to be holding these big rallies but all she’s doing is hiding in little village halls, not saying they are going to be there," a local resident told the Independent at the time.
Meanwhile Corbyn has been accused of supporting the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The Labour leader has been repeatedly forced to deny claims that he supported the organization's armed struggle — backed up by a minute's silence he observed at an Irish Republican event in 1987, to commemorate eight IRA men shot dead by Britain's Special Air Service (SAS).
Right-wing tabloids have been especially critical of Corbyn's alleged IRA connections, with the Daily Mail publishing an attack on him titled "Corbyn's 30 years of talking to terrorists" and a Sun headline reading: ''Vile’ Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn sides with terror as he refuses to condemn IRA atrocities." But Corbyn has said that what he really supports is peace.
What are the biggest issues?
Conservatives: Although Theresa May was initially against Britain leaving the E.U. (she was nicknamed “submarine” due to her low-key support for the Remain campaign), her government has been pushing for a so-called hard Brexit. On March 27, she triggered Article 50, officially kicking off the Brexit process, almost nine months to the date after the country's landmark vote to leave the E.U..
"We need to deliver a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union and forge a deep and special partnership with our friends and allies across Europe," the party's manifesto reads. "As there is increasingly little distinction between domestic and international affairs in matters of migration, national security and the economy, Britain must stay strong and united – and take a lead in the world to defend our interests."
Labour: The party backed Remain in the referendum, but Labour has accepted the result and will still go through with Brexit if it wins the election. However, the party has pledged to "end Theresa May’s reckless approach to Brexit, and seek to unite the country around a Brexit deal that works for every community in Britain."
These changes would include scrapping the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper — the party's formal policy paper setting out how the U.K. proposes to leave the E.U. — and replacing it with "fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union." Labour would also "immediately guarantee existing rights for all E.U. nationals living in Britain and secure reciprocal rights for U.K. citizens who have chosen to make their lives in E.U. countries."
Liberal Democrats: The Lib Dems are the U.K.'s biggest party opposed to Brexit. A central pledge of the party's manifesto is to give voters another say on Brexit, as well as a second referendum on the final deal. The party also says any Brexit deal must protect the free movement of people as well as retain membership of the single market and customs union.
"We passionately believe that Britain’s relationship with its neighbours is stronger as part of the European Union," the manifesto states. "Whatever its imperfections, the E.U. remains the best framework for working effectively and co-operating in the pursuit of our shared aims."
Others: The Green Party will offer voters the chance of a second referendum with the option to remain in E.U. once the final terms of the Brexit deal have been negotiated, UKIP will act as a "guard dog" to ensure that Brexit means exit, and the SNP wants Scotland to remains a part of the European Single Market and Customs Union.
Health and social care
Conservatives: Arguably the Conservatives' most controversial policy throughout the campaign has been a plan for health and home care for elderly Britons. It would see people pay for their own care until their combined savings and property value falls to £100,000 ($128,000). May announced a dramatic U-turn on the policy — dubbed the "dementia tax" — just days after a backlash ensued, saying that the cost of pensioners' care would include a cap on total contributions, but did not say what level the cap will be set at.
The party has also said it would increase National Health Service (NHS) spending so that it reaches £8 ($10.3) billion extra per year by 2022-23.
Labour: The party's main social care policies include providing the NHS with an extra £6 ($7.74) billion a year, halting the Conservative's hospital cut program and providing a £250 ($322) million-a-year fund for children's health.
Liberal Democrats: The Lib Dems have also made promises to raise £6 ($7.74) billion for the NHS, with an emphasis on tackling the stigma around mental health (waiting times in mental health would match those in physical care).
Others: The Green Party has pledged to "roll back privatization of the NHS," while UKIP said it would invest an extra £11 ($14) billion every year into the NHS, raise caps on medical school and nurse training places, and increase funding for mental health and dementia. The SNP said it will stand against all of the further planned cuts to social security, protect free personal and nursing care, and call on the new U.K. government to increase health spending per capita in England to match the current Scottish level, which is 7% higher, the BBC reports.
Conservatives: The Conservative Party is pledging to provide schools with an extra £4 ($5) billion by 2022 and to offer free school breakfast to all primary school students in England (although they are also planning to scrap free lunches for all but the poorest children in the first three years of primary school). The party also wants every student to know their times table off by heart by the age of 11.
Labour: Labour has pledged to remove university tuition fees in England and restore maintenance grants, nationalize England's nine water companies and raise taxes on Britain's highest earners.
Liberal Democrats: A major Lib Dem domestic policy is the legalization and regulation of marijuana for both recreational and medicinal purposes, with the money raised by a "cannabis tax" going toward public health, education and prevention. The party would also increase the maximum sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years and restore maintenance grants in order to help the "most disadvantaged students" (rather than scrapping tuition fees altogether).
Others: The Green Party would offer a four-day work week as well as universal basic income, and scrap university tuition, while UKIP would ban the wearing of face coverings in public places and axe tuition fees for science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine. The SNP would guarantee the continuation of free tuition in Scottish universities.