LONDON - Britons vote next Thursday in the country's third general election in under four years, with pollsters and politicians warning it isn't going to be easy to forecast the outcome.
As the clock ticks toward the most consequential vote in a generation, the battle for Downing Street appears to be coming down once again to the two main storied parties Labor and the Conservatives, say analysts, who note that voters have never held the leaders of either group in such high disdain as they do now.
The fracturing of the two dominant parties, the revival of the country's perennial third party, the Liberal Democrats, as well as the formation of a new anti-European Union party and the scrambling of traditional party allegiances, was adding too many variables for accurate prediction, the analysts cautioned, made more complicated by the country's first past-the-post-voting system. This is where the candidate with the majority of the votes becomes the winner.
One opinion poll after another and television debate after television debate have brought home how distrusting the British public has become of both the ruling Conservatives' Boris Johnson and Labor's Jeremy Corbyn.
Johnson is seen widely as an opportunist who will say anything to remain at No. 10 Downing Street but who doesn't mean what he says and doesn't say what he means. His public representation for being economical with the truth stretches back to when he was fired as a journalist by The Times newspaper for making up quotes.
Corbyn is viewed as more in touch than Johnson with the trials and tribulations of ordinary people, but is judged an impracticable far-left figure from a bygone era whose plan to re-nationalize a chunk of the economy would likely bankrupt the country and who promises far more than can be delivered when it comes to redistributing wealth and reinvesting in Britain's crumbling public services.
Corbyn's fudge on Brexit — in which he wants to renegotiate yet another exit deal with the European Union and then hold a second referendum while remaining neutral on the plebiscite — has provoked derision from studio audiences.
Johnson, too, has faced ridicule in TV studios as well as snubs on the streets when campaigning. "Is that a lie again?" queried an irate Yorkshire woman when he visited flood-hit parts of Britain last month and faced a barrage of criticism from furious locals over Conservative promises of cash aid that had amounted to nothing. In vain he tried to engage some in conversation. "You've not helped us … I don't know what you're here today for," sniped one woman, who insisted he get out of her way.
Mid-week, fast food giant Burger King decided to use the election to poke fun at Johnson's reputation for misrepresentation with a new advertisement slapped on the side of London buses, mocking his Brexit promises. "ANOTHER WHOPPER ON THE SIDE OF A BUS. MUST BE AN ELECTION," the ad declared, a tongue-in-cheek reference both to Burger King's signature burger, the Whopper, and to political lies.
"With a week to go before the election, the central issue seems to come down to trust," according to The Guardian columnist Gary Younge. "For the Conservatives it is about whether people trust what they say; for Labor, it is about whether voters trust that it can do what it says. The challenge for the Tories (Conservatives) goes all the way to the top," he added.
Many voters do not rate either of the main leaders so they must choose their least worst option, the "lesser of two evils," say analysts.
Conservative strategists hope the distrust voters harbor for Corbyn and Johnson will cancel out each other and that in the end they will win through and maintain their seven-point lead over Labor by garnering all the pro-Brexit vote. They are banking on the pro-EU vote fracturing between Labor and the Liberal Democrats, depriving Corbyn of sufficient seats to form a parliamentary majority or enough seats to cobble together a coalition government with Scotland's nationalists, who are likely to make major gains north of the border with England.
The Conservatives have stayed rigidly on message, trying to make the election as much about Brexit as possible and marketing the fact that they will take Britain out of Europe by the end of January, if they form the next government. Their discipline is working to make sure they are seen as the only real political vehicle for Brexit to happen and the challenge from the newly-minted Brexit Party of Nigel Farage is collapsing.
Farage's party is polling at about 5 percent and midweek, three of the party's high-profile members urged voters to back the Conservatives, if they want "Brexit to be delivered," angering Farage.
Conservative strategists are also banking on Britons not wanting another deadlocked parliament and that Brexit exhaustion will persuade even pro-EU Conservatives to back Johnson on the grounds that the Brexit mess needs now to be brought to a conclusion and that if Johnson isn't returned to Downing Street the political impasse will merely be prolonged.
The polls in the final days of campaigning have narrowed, with the Conservatives' lead almost dropping from 13 percent to 9 or 7 percent, but that is not enough to give Labor much hope of overtaking the Conservatives. Labor's support in its heartland districts of the north, many of which backed leaving Europe in the 2016 Brexit referendum, is also looking increasingly shaky.
But tactical voting by pro-EU voters to upset the Conservatives is a wild card and could upend polling predictions — two former prime ministers, Labor's Tony Blair and the Conservatives' John Major, both of whom want Britain to remain in the EU — have been urging Britons to vote tactically in constituencies to deny Johnson a parliamentary majority. Pro-EU organizations have created interactive electoral maps to encourage tactical voting.
More people than ever before are expected to vote tactically when a divided Britain has its say on Dec. 12 after more than three years of Brexit uncertainty, according to a Sunday Times poll with up to 6 to 10 percent of its readers thinking about voting tactically.