British Conservatives short of majority, early exit poll suggests

An exit poll projection suggests that British Prime Minister Theresa May’s gamble in calling an early election has backfired spectacularly, with her Conservative Party in danger of losing its majority in Parliament.

An opposition Labour Party that had been written off by many pollsters surged in the final weeks of a campaign that was marred by deadly attacks in Manchester and London. If accurate, the result will confound those who said Labour’s left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was electorally toxic.

The survey predicted the Conservatives will get 314 seats and the Labour Party 266. It projected 34 for the Scottish National Party and 14 for the Liberal Democrats.

Based on interviews with voters leaving polling stations across the country, the poll is conducted for a consortium of U.K. broadcasters and regarded as a reliable, though not exact, indicator of the likely result.

If confirmed, the result will be humiliating for May, who called a snap election in the hope of increasing her majority and strengthening Britain’s hand in exit talks with the European Union. If she has failed, she could face pressure to resign.

“If the poll is anything like accurate, this is completely catastrophic for the Conservatives and for Theresa May,” former treasury chief George Osborne told ITV.

A party needs to win 326 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons to form a majority government. The Conservatives held 330 seats in the last Parliament, compared with 229 for Labour, 54 for the Scottish National Party and nine for the Liberal Democrats.

During the last election, in 2015, the Conservatives did better than the exit poll predicted, and senior Conservatives said Thursday that they would take a wait-and-see approach.

“It’s still very, very early in the evening,” said Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire. “It’s too early in the night to be drawing conclusions.”

The forecast is much better than expected for the opposition Labour Party, which had been expected to lose seats.

Scottish independence in question

It could also be bad news for the Scottish National Party, which is predicted to lose 20 of its 54 seats — though the pollsters caution that there is a lot of uncertainty around the Scottish forecast.

A big loss could complicate the SNP’s plans to push for a new referendum on Scottish independence as Britain prepares to leave the European Union.

The poll was released after polls closed at 10 p.m. local time, ending an unsettled national election held in the shadow of three deadly attacks in as many months.

U.K. on high alert

Attacks that killed 30 people in Manchester and London have forced May to defend the government’s record on terrorism, and this week she promised that if she wins she will crack down on extremism — even at the expense of human rights.

Rachel Sheard, who was casting her vote near the site of Saturday’s van and knife rampage at London Bridge, said the election had not gone as expected — and that it certainly wasn’t about Brexit.

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Polling stations across the U.K., including this one in London’s Holborn and St. Pancras constituency, closed at 10 p.m. local time (5 p.m. ET). (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

“I don’t think that’s in the hearts and minds of Londoners at the minute, [not] nearly as much as security is,” said Sheard, 22. “It was very scary on Saturday.”

Eight people were killed near London Bridge when three men drove a van into pedestrians then stabbed revellers in an area filled with bars and restaurants. Two weeks earlier, a suicide bomber killed 22 people as they were leaving a concert in Manchester, and five people died during a vehicle and knife attack near Parliament on March 22.

The attacks have left Britain on high alert. The official threat level from terrorism stands at “severe,” the second-highest rating, indicating an attack is “highly likely.”

Snap election

When May called the election seven weeks ago, she was seeking to capitalize on opinion polls showing that her Conservatives had a wide lead over the opposition Labour Party.

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Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband, Philip, leave a polling station in Sonning. May says the Conservatives will build a ‘stronger, fairer and more prosperous Britain.’ (Toby Melville/Reuters)

She became prime minister through a Conservative Party leadership contest when her predecessor, David Cameron, resigned after voters backed leaving the EU.

The time seemed right to seek her own mandate from the British people. She argued that increasing the Conservative majority in Parliament would strengthen Britain’s hand in EU exit talks.

But things did not go to plan.

Lacklustre campaign

Brexit failed to emerge as a major issue in the campaign, as both the Conservatives and Labour said they would respect voters’ wishes and go through with the divorce.

May, who went into the election with a reputation for quiet competence, was criticized for a lacklustre campaigning style and for a plan to force elderly people to pay more for their care, a proposal her opponents dubbed the “dementia tax.” As the polls suggested a tightening race, pollsters spoke less often of a landslide and raised the possibility that May’s majority would be eroded.

In her final message to voters, May tried to put the focus back on Brexit.

“I can only build that better country and get the right deal in Brussels with the support of the British people,” she said. “So whoever you have voted for in the past, if that is the future you want then vote Conservative today and we can all go forward together.”

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Britain’s Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, shown outside a polling station in London, will need high turnout for his party to gain ground. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in his final rally claimed he had reshaped British politics.

‘The new centre ground’

“As we prepare for government, we have already changed the debate and given people hope,” he said. “Hope that it doesn’t have to be like this; that inequality can be tackled; that austerity can be ended; that you can stand up to the elites and the cynics. This is the new centre ground.”

May says the Conservatives will build a “stronger, fairer and more prosperous Britain,” while Corbyn says he would govern “for the many, not the few.”

​Pound takes a beating

The pound fell sharply after the exit poll for Britain’s election forecast that the Conservatives would not get a majority of the seats in the House of Commons.

The pound lost more than two cents against the dollar within seconds of the exit poll result, falling from $ 1.2955 to $ 1.2752 late Thursday.

Some investors worry that the lack of a majority for the Conservatives, who are widely expected to top the poll, would weaken the next government’s hand in the upcoming negotiations to leave the European Union.

A big majority would provide political certainty for the next five years, giving May a freer hand in the Brexit negotiations to make the compromises necessary for a deal. She would, the reasoning goes, be able resist calls from some in her party who are prepared to see Britain leave without any sort of trade deal that would provide business with easy and cheap access to the EU single market.

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