LONDON — After a seven-week election campaign that veered from the boredom of staged soundbites to the trauma of two deadly attacks, Britain’s political leaders asked voters Wednesday to choose: Who is best to keep the U.K. safe and lead it out of the European Union?
Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May and opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn crisscrossed the country on the final day of campaigning, trying to woo voters with rival plans for Brexit, building a fairer society and combating a terrorist threat made all too immediate by attacks in Manchester and London.
May promised to crack down on extremism if she wins Thursday’s vote — even if that means watering down human rights legislation.
“We are seeing the terrorist threat changing, we are seeing it evolve and we need to respond to that,” May said.
Corbyn argued that the real danger comes from Conservative cuts to police budgets.
“We won’t defeat terrorists by ripping up our basic rights and our democracy,” he said.
Polls will be open Thursday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (0600GMT to 2100GMT), with all 650 seats in the House of Commons up for grabs. A party needs to win 326 seats to form a majority government.
May called the snap election — three years early — in a bid to boost the Conservative majority in Parliament, which she says will strengthen Britain’s hand in divorce talks with the European Union.
“Get those negotiations wrong and the consequences will be dire,” she warned Wednesday.
Brexit negotiations will take up much of the incoming government’s time over the next two years. But it has taken a back seat in the election — initially to debates about how to narrow the gap between rich and poor, then by the attacks in Manchester and London.
Regarding the former, a Conservative victory would mean continued cuts to public spending in a bid to reduce the nation’s deficit; Labour says it will pump millions more into education and health care and raise income tax on the highest earners.
Corbyn said Thursday’s vote offered a clear choice between “another five years of a Tory government, underfunding of services all across the UK … or a Labour government that invests for all, all across Britain.”
The deadly attacks in Manchester on May 22 and London on Saturday twice brought the campaign to a temporary halt — and put the threat from international terrorism front and center.
As May vowed to bring in new anti-terror measures, Corbyn criticized cuts to the police under the Conservatives, which saw the number of officers plummet by almost 20,000 between 2010 and 2016.
May responded by assailing Corbyn’s security record. He opposed British military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, wants to scrap Britain’s nuclear arsenal and shared platforms with Irish republicans in the years when the IRA was setting off bombs in Britain.
Conservative-supporting newspapers went on the attack against Corbyn on Wednesday. The Daily Mail branded him and senior colleagues “apologists for terror,” while the Daily Express exhorted: “Vote May or we face disaster.”
Labour has had a better campaign than many expected, with opinion polls showing a narrowing of the gap between it and the Conservatives. Corbyn, an old school left-winger widely written off at the start of the campaign, has drawn thousands of people to upbeat rallies and energized young voters with his plans to boost public spending after years of Conservative austerity.
“They underestimated us didn’t they?” Corbyn told supporters at a rally in Glasgow, one of six stops he made Wednesday. “They underestimated the good sense of ordinary people, ordinary people all over Britain.”
He urged Britons to honor the victims of the Manchester and London attacks “by voting — by showing democracy that will never be cowed by terror and that hope can triumph over fear.”
May went into the election with a reputation for quiet competence, and campaigned on a promise of “strong and stable government.” But her campaign has often stuttered over the past few weeks. She was accused of running a tightly controlled and lackluster campaign, and unveiled several policies — including hits on pensioners’ wallets — that proved unpopular with voters.
May began Wednesday with an early morning visit to London’s Smithfield meat market, where she was heckled by some butchers shouting “Vote Labour!” She later addressed several gatherings across England, accompanied by her husband Philip, who has kept a low profile through much of the campaign.
It’s unclear whether Britain’s anxiety about terrorism will benefit May, as the incumbent prime minister, or whether criticism of her record in government will hit home.
The latest opinion polls vary between a solid Conservative lead and a dead heat. The difference depends largely on the size of turnout among young people, traditionally the least likely to vote.
“I was going to vote Labour and I’m still going to vote Labour,” said Tom Lewis, an insurance broker walking in Borough, the London neighborhood hit by Saturdays’ attack.
“I think that the idea of the Tories being strong on security is a bit of a red herring because they are unwilling to pay for more police. Fundamentally that’s what you need for security. Cutting human rights doesn’t necessarily increase security — it can very often decrease security.”