LONDON: Voters went to the polls on Thursday in an election that will pave the way for Brexit under Prime Minister Boris Johnson or propel Britain towards another referendum that could ultimately reverse the decision to leave the European Union.
After failing to deliver Brexit by an Oct. 31 deadline, Johnson called the election to break what he cast as political paralysis that had thwarted Britain's departure and sapped confidence in the economy.
The face of the "Leave" campaign in the 2016 referendum, 55-year-old Johnson fought the election under the slogan of "Get Brexit Done", promising to end the deadlock and spend more on health, education and the police.
His main opponent, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, 70, promised higher public spending, nationalisation of key services, taxes on the wealthy and another referendum on Brexit.
All major opinion polls suggest Johnson will win, though pollsters got the 2016 referendum wrong and their models predict outcomes ranging from a hung parliament to the biggest Conservative landslide since the era of Margaret Thatcher.
Seven eve-of-election opinion polls published on Wednesday showed the Conservatives ahead of Labour by an average of nearly 10 points although Labour narrowed the gap in four of them.
"We could have a Conservative majority government which will get Brexit done and unleash Britain's potential," Johnson told campaigners. "This election is our chance to end the gridlock but the result is on a knife-edge." Corbyn said the Conservatives were the party of "billionaires" while Labour represented the many.
"You can vote for despair and vote for the dishonesty of this government, or you can vote Labour and get a government that can bring hope to the future," he said.
Polls opened at 0700 GMT and will close at 2200 GMT when an exit poll will give the first indications of the result.
Official results from the bulk of the United Kingdom's 650 constituencies begin to come in from 2300 GMT to 0500 GMT.
Britain's election and Brexit: Key dates
December 12: Election day
Voters in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland choose 650 members of the House of Commons. Polls open from 7:00 am (0700 GMT) to 10:00 pm (2200 GMT).
Exit polls at 10:00 pm will give an idea of how the main parties have performed, with official results trickling in overnight.
EU leaders meanwhile are meeting in Brussels for the opening of a two-day summit. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will not attend, due to the election.
December 13: New government
If Johnson has secured a majority, he will head to Buckingham Palace to be formally re-appointed prime minister by Queen Elizabeth II.
If he falls short, he will stay in Downing Street until either he or Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn can secure a deal with smaller parties to command a Commons majority.
December 17: Parliament resumes
Newly elected MPs will choose a speaker of the House of Commons, and are likely to reappoint Lindsay Hoyle, who was elected at the end of the last parliament, on November 4.
The 650 MPs are then sworn in.
December 19: Queen's Speech
If Johnson has won, he plans to move quickly to set out his government's legislative agenda, in the form of the Queen's Speech.
The queen will read out the list of bills he hopes to implement during a ceremony in the unelected upper House of Lords.
Officials plan a 'slimmed-down' event because of the early election and the proximity to Christmas, with the monarch arriving without full regalia or cavalry.
January 31: Brexit day
Britain is due to leave the European Union on January 31, the fourth deadline since the 2016 referendum.
If Johnson wins, he will seek to get the exit terms he has agreed with Brussels through parliament before this date, to ensure a smooth departure.
If he fails, and if Labour takes office, Britain is likely to ask the EU for what will be the fourth Brexit delay. All 27 other members of the bloc need to agree.
July 1: Trade talks deadline
If Brexit happens, Britain will enter a transition phase where its relationship with the EU will remain the same in practice until December 31, 2020.
This is intended to allow the two sides time to agree a new trade and security partnership.
Britain can ask to extend the period for one or two years, but must inform the EU of its request by July 1. After that, there will be no further opportunities to extend.
December 31, 2020: Transition ends
The date that existing relations between Britain and the EU are finally severed.
Without a new deal, or an extension to the transition period, cross-Channel trade, transportation and a multitude of other ties risk being severely disrupted.
What's at stake for Britain's economy in election
The two main parties in Britain's election on Thursday offer contrasting plans on spending, tax, the role of the state, trade unions and Brexit.
Below is a summary of the main economic policies of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Party and Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party.
SPENDING Johnson is already loosening the purse strings after nearly 10 years of cuts for many public services. He approved the biggest rise in day-to-day spending in 15 years in September.
But proposals in the Conservatives' election manifesto for further funding increases are modest and would mean continued austerity for many services outside the health system, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) think-tank.
Labour's spending plans dwarf Johnson's.
Corbyn wants to reverse cuts to services such as the police and give public workers a 5% pay rise, which would push day-to-day spending up by 82.9 billion pounds ($106 billion) a year by 2024. The equivalent increase in the Conservatives' spending plans is 2.9 billion pounds.
On investment, the difference is smaller but still stark.
Under the Conservatives, it would rise by about 20 billion pounds a year, or a third of Labour's planned increase.
The IFS has said Labour's plans are too big to implement, at least in the short term.
TAX Johnson would gradually increase the threshold at which workers pay social security contributions. He has also ruled out increasing income tax and Value-Added Tax.
Corbyn has said Labour's spending increases will be funded largely by higher taxes for companies and people in the top income bracket.
The IFS has said both parties would probably have to raise taxes further, or borrow more, if they stick to their plans.
Role of the state
Labour's left-wing leadership wants to put the state back at the centre of Britain's economy.
Plans to nationalise power networks, water, rail and postal companies expanded last month to include the fixed-line network of telecoms group BT to give free broadband to everyone.
Labour says workers in large companies will get a 10% stake via Inclusive Ownership Funds which would share profits with staff and pump money into government apprentice schemes.
Johnson favours free market policies but he has proposed new state aid rules, changing state purchasing policies and reforming farming so public bodies buy more British goods.
Labour has promised a "huge roll-out of individual and collective rights" to give more power to unions.
Britain's relationship with the European Union will have a major bearing on the economy.
Johnson wants to leave by Jan. 31 and secure a trade deal with the bloc by the end of 2020 when a transition period ends, meaning tariffs and other barriers to trade could come into force for British goods and services.
Johnson says ending the Brexit uncertainty would "unleash a great tide of investment" and boost the economy.
However, getting a new deal done before the end of next year is seen as tough given the complexities of trade negotiations.
Corbyn says he will negotiate a new exit deal and put it to a referendum, raising the prospect of Britain reversing its Brexit decision altogether.
The finance ministry estimated in 2018 that striking a free trade deal with the EU would reduce the size of the economy by about 5% by the mid-2030s compared with staying in the EU.
Labour's proposal of remaining in an EU customs union with close alignment to its single market is widely seen as being less damaging to the economy.