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The docklands of Grimsby, a city on England's northeastern coast, have gotten more dilapidated over the years as its fishing industry has been largely wiped out. Many voters blame European Union quotas and rules for the city's misfortune, and a majority here voted to leave the bloc.

Francesca Jones/The Globe and Mail

Britain is heading for one of the most unusual elections in decades on Thursday as voters try to end the Brexit deadlock by setting aside generations of party loyalties.

The campaign began largely as a wide open contest among several parties, but it has since turned into a showdown between the Conservatives and Labour over which party will end the Brexit uncertainty. While pro-Leave parties have co-ordinated somewhat to avoid vote splitting, the left remains divided, and complicated by the Labour Party’s lack of clarity on its position. Polls put the Conservatives ahead, but the race has tightened and many ridings could be decided by a handful of votes.

Few places illustrate the volatility of voters better than Grimsby, a working-class coastal city in northeastern England. This was once the largest fishing port in the world, but the industry has died out and many people blame the demise on quotas set by the European Union and its predecessors. As a result, Grimsby voted 71 per cent to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum and many voters are furious that the country still hasn’t left. That anger has been fertile ground for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has pledged to “get Brexit done” and is urging voters to give the Conservatives a majority so they can push through a Brexit deal he struck with the EU.

Story continues below advertisement

British Conservative Leader Boris Johnson visits Grimsby's fish market on Dec. 9.

Ben Stansall/Ben Stansall/Pool via AP

Isle of

Man

North

Sea

Grimsby

Manchester

Liverpool

North Norfolk

ENGLAND

Birmingham

Cambridge

WALES

Swansea

Bristol

London

Bristol

Channel

0

100

KM

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

Isle of

Man

North

Sea

Grimsby

Manchester

Liverpool

North Norfolk

ENGLAND

Birmingham

Cambridge

WALES

Swansea

Bristol

London

Bristol

Channel

0

100

KM

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

Isle of

Man

Grimsby

North Sea

Manchester

Liverpool

North Norfolk

ENGLAND

Birmingham

Cambridge

WALES

Swansea

Bristol

London

Bristol

Channel

0

100

KM

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

Mr. Johnson campaigned in Grimsby on Monday and the riding has been flooded with visits from senior cabinet ministers. It’s an unlikely push by the Conservatives considering Grimsby has been held by the Labour Party for 74 years.

Labour is having trouble persuading voters to stick with the party in Grimsby. Its position on Brexit has been cumbersome and Leader Jeremy Corbyn has refused to take a firm position. Instead, he plans to negotiate a new Brexit deal and put it to a referendum, which could take six months and during which, he has said, he would remain neutral.

It’s all too much for voters such as Mark Smith, who runs a small construction business in Grimsby and wants to leave the EU. “The people already decided Brexit but the politicians have just screwed us over,” Mr. Smith said. He grew up in a solid Labour household, but he’s now campaigning for the Conservatives. His 22-year old daughter, Sheree Smith, voted to remain in the EU and she still backs Labour. But she conceded Grimsby could go blue on Thursday.

Mark Smith and his daughter Sheree are on opposite sides of both the Brexit question (he's Leave, she's Remain) and the election (he supports the Conservatives, she supports Labour).

Francesca Jones/The Globe and Mail

From fishing ports such as Grimsby to teeming Manchester and farming communities in Norfolk, the issue of Brexit is breaking down political norms – forcing candidates to scramble as voters split along Brexit lines instead of party lines. Sir John Curtice, a polling expert and professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said Brexit is restructuring politics all over the country. “Brexit is not wholly determining how people are going to vote, but it is clearly shaping the character of support for the parties,” Sir John told a group of foreign journalists last week. While opinion polls have shown little change in overall support since the election began, with the Conservatives holding a 10 point lead, Sir John said there has been movement among Leave and Remain voters.

Attitudes toward Brexit haven’t changed much since 2016 and polls show that nearly 90 per cent of people say they would vote the same way they did three years ago. What has changed is how voters are using Brexit to determine which party to support. “Voters have been assessing and re-assessing and re-re-assessing what’s the best way of expressing their views about Brexit without ever really changing their views about that subject in the first place,” Sir John said.

His analysis of polls shows that the Conservatives have done a better job attracting Leave voters than Labour. Around 70 per cent of Leave supporters are backing the Conservatives, up from 55 per cent when the campaign started. Most of the movement has come at the expense of the Brexit Party. By contrast, Labour has won the support of just 15 per cent of Leave voters, virtually unchanged from the start of the campaign. That could prove critical because most of Labour’s seats are held in a line of pro-Brexit constituencies that stretches across the country from Grimsby to Wales.

To make up for the loss of Brexit backers, Labour had hoped to pick up support among Remainers who were moving toward the Liberal Democrats, which wants keep Britain in the EU. But Labour’s support among remain voters has only increased to 47 per cent, from 35 per cent when the campaign started; likely not enough to overcome the loss of pro-Brexit seats. Sir John said the only message that has cut through to voters has been Mr. Johnson’s “get Brexit done” and Labour has failed to “construct a narrative of the kind of Britain that it wants to create.”

Story continues below advertisement

Conservatives have found some footholds in the economically ailing city of Grimsby, taking control of the city council in the spring and reducing Labour's margin of victory in 2017's election.

Francesca Jones/The Globe and Mail

Voters' dissatisfaction with Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, shown at a Dec. 10 campaign event in Morecambe, northwestern England, has been a hazard for the party's candidate in Grimsby.

Joe Giddens/Joe Giddens/PA via AP

For Melanie Onn, who has held the Grimsby seat for Labour since 2015, the challenge is to convince voters that she believes in Brexit while also playing down Mr. Corbyn. The Labour Leader hasn’t visited the riding and Ms. Onn isn’t keen to see him. “He’s a kind of Marmite individual,” she said in an interview on Monday. “Some people absolutely love him and other people are dead set against him. It’s a difficult.”

Ms. Onn backed the Remain side in the 2016 referendum but she has been eager to point out that she respected the result. She’s also campaigning hard on the fact that she was among the few Labour MPs who broke ranks and supported Mr. Johnson’s Brexit deal in Parliament. “I can demonstrate that I voted to leave under a deal,” she said.

But she acknowledged that she’s facing a tough fight. The Conservatives won control of the city council for the first time last May and the party cut Ms. Onn’s margin of victory in the 2017 election to just 2,500 votes.

During an all-candidates meeting on Monday, Ms. Onn faced a grilling over Brexit and at one point she chastised the audience for being disrespectful. “Why are you shouting? It’s completely unnecessary,” she told one questioner.

Her Conservative challenger, Lia Nici, faced far less scrutiny during the debate even though she also voted to remain in the EU in 2016. After the event, Ms. Nici said many people have quietly told her they plan to vote Conservative for the first time.

“I’m trying to be sensible,” she said referring to polls that give her a slight lead. “The reality is that I think it would be a huge turnover.”

The moderator gestures during a Grimsby all-candidates debate. Labour's Melanie Onn, second from right, is seeking re-election against a challenge from Conservative Lia Nici, second from left. Also running are Ian Barfield of the Liberal Democrats (left); Lloyd Emerson of the Greens (right); and the Brexit Party's Christopher Barker and independent Nigel Winn (not pictured).

Francesca Jones/Francesca Jones/The Globe and Mail

Across the country in Manchester, Angela Smith is facing a similar challenge but for different reasons. Ms. Smith had been a Labour MP for 15 years in northern England before she defected to the Liberal Democrats in September. She made the move mainly because she felt Labour wasn’t going far enough to stop Brexit. She’s now one of the party’s star candidates and she’s running in an upscale suburb of Manchester, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU but is held by Sir Graham Brady, a pro-Brexit Conservative MP.

“On the doorstep, the first thing that people bring up with me is Brexit,” Ms. Smith said as she canvassed a winding street. The Liberal Democrats have been making some inroads here and the party did well in recent elections for city council and the European Parliament.

Sir Graham Brady is a pro-Brexit Conservative MP in a Manchester riding where most voters supported Remain in 2016.

Jack Taylor/Jack Taylor/Getty Images

But defeating Sir Graham is a tall order. He won the riding with 26,933 votes in 2017 and the Liberal Democrat candidate finished third with 4,051 votes. Even worse for Ms. Smith, the Labour and Green Party candidates are also staunchly pro-EU which means the remain vote will split. However, there is no Brexit Party candidate to take Leave votes away from Sir Graham.

The dilemma becomes all too clear as Ms. Smith greets several voters during her door knocking. They all back remaining in the EU but they are torn between voting for her and Labour candidate, Andrew Western. Many say they are closely following several websites that offer tips on how to vote tactically to prevent the Conservatives from winning a majority.

In North Norfolk, a rural riding northeast of Cambridge, all four parties have a chance of winning. The area voted by more than 60 per cent to leave the EU and long-time MP Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat, split with his party over Brexit before retiring in October.

While issues such as health care and housing are important here, Brexit looms large and a recent all-candidates debate got so unruly one audience member had to be kicked out. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Labour candidate Emma Corlett, who added that the result will come down to how the Remain and Leave votes divide up. “I’ve never been involved in an election like this.”

Story continues below advertisement


U.K. election snapshot: Projected seat count

How the 632 parliamentary constituencies in Eng-

land, Scotland and Wales will be split by the parties,

based on YouGov’s MRP model on Dec. 10

Party

Voting intention estimates

Seat est.

Conserv.

43%

339

Labour

34

231

Lib. Dems

12

15

Brexit Party

3

0

Green

3

1

SNP

3

41

Plaid Cymu

0

4

Other

2

1

N. Ireland

N/A

18

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: yougov.co.uk

How the 632 parliamentary constituencies in England,

Scotland and Wales will be split by the parties, based on

YouGov’s MRP model on Dec. 10

Party

Voting intention estimates

Seat est.

Conservative

43%

339

Labour

34

231

Lib. Dems

12

15

Brexit Party

3

0

Green

3

1

SNP

3

41

Plaid Cymu

0

4

Other

2

1

N. Ireland

N/A

18

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: yougov.co.uk

How the 632 parliamentary constituencies in England, Scotland and Wales

will be split by the parties, based on YouGov’s MRP model on Dec. 10

Party

Voting intention estimates

Seat est.

Conservative

43%

339

Labour

34

231

Liberal Democrats

12

15

Brexit Party

3

0

Green

3

1

SNP

3

41

Plaid Cymu

0

4

Other

2

1

Northern Ireland

N/A

18

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: yougov.co.uk

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