LONDON, UK - With Britons heading to the polls on Thursday to vote in their third general election in under four years, the question the ruling Conservatives are asking themselves is, will Prime Minister Boris Johnson's gamble to hold an early ballot pay off?
Will he be able to accomplish what his Downing Street predecessor, Theresa May, failed to do in 2017 with her snap election and secure a large parliamentary majority?
Johnson hopes to achieve what she failed to do - to persuade traditional working-class voters who favor Brexit in the north of England to ditch their lifetime habit of voting Labor. If successful, it would amount to a seismic reshaping of British politics.
Opinion polls suggest the Conservatives may pull off a big win Thursday and secure a sufficient majority for Johnson to end the long-running Brexit mess by taking Britain out of the European Union by the end of January. In the final days of the campaign, Johnson has focused on Labor's so-called "red wall," searching for cracks to widen in old towns and farming villages crucial to the Conservatives' hopes of winning Thursday's election, warning voters that they face a "great Brexit betrayal," if they vote for an increasingly metropolitan and southern Labor Party.
Most polls have been giving the Conservatives, also known as Tories, a 10-percent lead over Labor, the country's main opposition party. But the race appears to have tightened in the final stretch. One poll midweek had the lead cut to 8 percent and a further drop would point to a likely hung parliament. Few pollsters are ready to hazard a firm prediction of a Johnson win. In 2017, the opinion polls were upended by a late surge toward Labor and a high turnout by pro-EU youngsters. Labor has a strong record in getting out their vote.
Brexit has turned Britain into a politically tumultuous country - old party allegiances have weakened and a wide generation gap has been exposed, with younger voters shifting left and older voters shifting right. New political groups have emerged; the centrist pro-EU Liberal Democrats have enjoyed a revival thanks to lawmakers defecting to them from Labor and the Tories. Both main parties have lurched toward their extremes, putting off their moderate supporters.
All of that spells the possibility of some big surprises on election night. Twelve percent to 17 percent of Britons apparently are still undecided voters.
The conduct of this election, what has been dubbed Britain's first post-truth election, has been anything but normal and that could come back to hurt the parties when voters are casting their ballots.
The campaigning has become more toxic as it unfolds. "Fake news" stories have been planted with abandon, and online disinformation and manipulation are being used to rally support by fomenting outrage and anger. Social media have become more influential in the national discourse than the newspapers or the broadcasters. The politicians have been lost in a world of spin, say election critics, playing fast and loose with the facts, determinedly evading serious examination of their policies and plans.
"This election has been marinated in mendacity: big lies and small lies, quarter truths and pseudo facts; distraction, dissembling and disinformation; and digital skulduggery on an industrial scale," the country's storied Economist magazine said this week.
The biggest lie by the Tories, say commentators, has been that Brexit can be delivered painlessly and without much disruption. "Get Brexit done" has been Johnson's mantra throughout. And the Conservatives have stayed relentlessly on message, warning that a vote for anyone but them will condemn Britain to further "dither and delay" in a likely deadlocked hung parliament with a Labor-led coalition government.
"On Thursday, the country has the chance to end the delay, get Brexit done and move on to sorting out all the other things that matter to you," Johnson has said.
But Brexit will take longer than just a month to sort out and there will be a high economic price to pay in terms of the national debt and deficit, and major disruption for businesses, according to analysts and the Bank of England. The January Brexit deadline Johnson wants to observe is just the start of a long process of negotiations to settle on a future arrangement with Britain's largest trading partner, the EU. Most observers argue this second stage of negotiations will be tricky and could take years.
If Johnson wins, "Skies will begin to darken as flocks of Mr. Johnson's chickens will come home to roost," says Matthew Parris, a former Conservative lawmaker, and now a columnist at The Times newspaper.
Labor obfuscation, say commentators, has come with the party's radical high-spending plans to re-nationalize the energy, rail and water industries, broadband providers and Royal Mail. It has promised to introduce a four-day work week, redistribute wealth and reinvest in Britain's crumbling public services, all without increasing taxes except for billionaires. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, a respected British research institution, has dubbed those plans as "not a credible prospectus."
Voters have become angrier and more disillusioned as the election has unfolded, with candidates reporting unprecedented vitriol on the doorsteps. None of the party leaders has impressed the electorate in what has become a "hold-your-nose" election, described as "an unpopularity contest."
Both Boris Johnson and Labor's Jeremy Corbyn, as well as the leader of Britain's perennial third party, the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, have been laughed at and mocked by hostile, disbelieving studio audiences. Johnson is the most unpopular new prime minister since the advent of opinion polls and seen widely as an opportunist. Corbyn is the most disliked leader of the opposition since polls began, and widely regarded as a tired far-left figure from a bygone era.
Their unpopularity goes some way to explain why so many voters are undecided, say pollsters. "We have never seen as many undecided voters this late in the campaign," according to pollster Paul Hilder. "A much larger Conservative landslide is still possible - but so is a hung parliament," he added.
As the campaign has unfolded, the Liberal Democrats appear to have failed to fill the gap in the middle of British politics. Their inexperienced leader made what looks like a fatal campaign mistake in deciding to campaign not for a second Brexit referendum, but for a revocation of the 2016 plebiscite altogether.
Labor's position has been what critics describe as a fudge, involving a pledge to renegotiate another exit deal and then to hold a second referendum. Nigel Farage's newly-minted Brexit Party has barely figured, having been squeezed by Johnson's pledge to deliver Brexit.
The Conservatives are banking on voters, even those who would prefer to remain in the EU, of just being sick and tired of the whole Brexit mess, and seeing Johnson as the only escape route.
But if voters are more concerned about the crumbling state of Britain's public services and the years of austerity under the Conservatives, then Labor could defy the opinions polls. Labor has relentlessly focused on the NHS and issues around social care.
A further high danger for Johnson is tactical voting by pro-EU voters - a strategy that's been urged on Britons by two former prime ministers, Labor's Tony Blair and the Conservatives' John Major, who argue Brexit is toxic for Britain. They have urged pro-EU Britons to back the candidate from either Labor or the Liberal Democrats most likely to defeat the Tories in their constituency.
Ten percent of voters say they plan to vote tactically and the internet is full of helpful interactive maps to assist them. Johnson could technically be denied a majority on Thursday if just 41,000 people voted tactically in 36 out of 650 seats. But some pollsters say so far, the signs are that pro-Brexiters are uniting around the Conservatives, while pro-EU voters are split between opposition parties - and that is the way the Tories want it to remain.