LONDON - Polling stations are open for the general election Britain is holding Thursday.
Prime Minister Theresa May called the snap election — an early vote, three years before Parliament's term was to expire — in early April in the hope of winning strong backing for her government during upcoming negotiations in Brussels on the country's exit from the European Union.
The prime minister originally expected a big win to boost her Conservative Party's majority in Parliament, but that optimism faded as her campaign sputtered over the past few weeks.
Late developments, however, could upend the experts' predictions once again.
Polls: Labour Party is gaining
Several recent opinion polls showed the opposition Labour Party was gaining on the Conservatives, or Tories as they are known in Britain. Not all of the polls agreed, though, and Conservative activists professed confidence.
The Times newspaper reported Wednesday night that a final poll by the YouGov group showed the Conservatives' lead over Labour had widened to seven percentage points — up from four percent on Saturday, just hours before the London Bridge terrorist attack that killed eight people.
All 650 seats in the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament, are up for election Thursday. A party needs to win 326 seats to form a majority government.
The deadly terror attacks in England — in London last Saturday, and in Manchester 12 days earlier — have overshadowed the late stages of political campaigning. Speaking at a rally Tuesday, the prime minister pledged to put security first:
“And if, if our human rights laws stop us from doing it, we'll change those laws so we can do it,” she told supporters to enthusiastic applause.
Proper funding needed
May's threat to tear up the Human Rights Act drew criticism from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“The way you deal with the threat to the democracy is not by reducing democracy, it's by dealing with the threat,” he said during a campaign visit to Glasgow Wednesday. “That means properly funding our police and security services.”
Political analyst Professor Iain Begg of the London School of Economics says the prime minister is now fighting to save face:
“If she does no better than [former Conservative prime minister] David Cameron did in 2015, it would be deemed a considerable defeat for her. Jeremy Corbyn seems to be doing far better than most people expected.”
Needed: Young voters
Corbyn needs a big turnout by young voters, and his focus on improving public services and reducing fees for university students has won support. But he also has faced questions over national security and his past associations with groups including Hamas and the Irish Republican Army.
Watch: Terrorism, Brexit Dominate British Election Campaign
Third in the polls are the Liberal Democrats, whose central theme is opposition to Brexit — Britain's departure from the European Union. On that question, analyst Iain Begg says, the country appears to have moved on.
“Economy, national health services and party leaders are the top issues,” Begg said. “Even in this Brexit context, Europe is not as high an issue as it might otherwise be, and therefore the Liberal Democrats have probably backed the wrong horse by trying to emphasize their campaign is about Brexit.”
May needs a big win
Support for the far-right UK Independence Party has collapsed. With Brexit decided, pollsters say many UKIP voters have switched to the Conservatives.
Theresa May says she needs a big win to give her a stronger hand in upcoming Brexit negotiations, but officials in Brussels say the size of her majority will have no bearing on the talks.
There will be no political honeymoon for the winner, says Kevin Schofield, editor of the website politicshome.com, the self-styled "home of digital public affairs" in Britain.
“You're straight into the biggest discussions, the biggest negotiations that any British government has faced in a generation, probably since the Second World War, Schofield said. "So there is no respite, there is no letup."
Independence for Scotland?
A big Conservative win would encourage those who support independence for Scotland. Breaking away from the United Kingdom and becoming an independent nation won considerable support earlier in this decade, but the Scots rejected independence in a referendum three years ago.
Now, however, following the Brexit decision by voters nationwide — in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — the Scottish National Party is demanding a second referendum on independence.
“In actual fact, the Scottish people, most of them don't want a referendum so soon,” said website editor Schofield. “They think that they've made their decision in 2014.”
Terrorism, Brexit and the potential breakup of Britain are daunting challenges that lie ahead for the winner of Thursday's election. Each political party is offering voters a very different road map to the future.