LONDON — The British Parliament on Wednesday approved Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for an early general election, setting the stage for a contest that will help define terms of the country’s withdrawal from the European Union.
The overwhelming vote, 522 to 13, easily cleared the two-thirds threshold May needed to call a snap election, which is scheduled for June 8.
But the near-unanimity of the decision to summon voters to the polls followed a rancorous debate that highlighted some of the thorniest issues Britain faces today: whether it is ready to leave the bloc’s single market and customs union — a so-called hard Brexit; the stark and rising inequality among the country’s regions; and the future of Scotland, where there are growing calls for a new referendum on independence.
“A general election is the best way to strengthen Britain’s hand in the negotiations ahead,” May told lawmakers at the outset of a 90-minute debate.
Last month, May formally triggered the two-year procedure for leaving the European Union, setting a March 2019 deadline for departure. The talks are expected to be difficult.
If Britain were to stick with the next scheduled general election date, May 2020, “the negotiations would reach their most difficult and sensitive stage just as an election was looming on the horizon,” May said. She said her Conservative Party needed a new mandate: “five years of strong and stable leadership, to see us through the negotiations.”
Even though opinion polls show the Conservative Party is likely to perform strongly, lawmakers from the opposition parties were expected to go along with May’s call — perhaps out of fear that resisting an early election would make them look weak.
“We welcome the opportunity for an early election,” the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said, before quickly reminding lawmakers that May had promised repeatedly that there would not be one.
“This election is about her government’s failure to rebuild the economy and living standards for the majority,” Corbyn said, as he tried to shift the focus away from Brexit.
Corbyn condemned May’s reluctance to participate in a televised debate with other party leaders before the election, as has Tim Farron, the leader of another opposition party, the centrist, pro-Europe Liberal Democrats.
While many critics of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union hope that an early general election will give them a chance to obstruct the process, opinion polls suggest it will do the opposite, strengthening May’s power to force through any deal she negotiates.
If her Conservative Party wins a majority, as surveys expect it to, May would not be required to call another general election until 2022. That timetable would allow for much more time to build a new relationship with the European Union and would lessen the chances of a disorderly departure from the bloc — often likened to walking off a cliff edge.
May became prime minister after the country voted in a June referendum to leave the bloc, prompting her predecessor, David Cameron, to resign.
Because she was not leading the Conservative Party at the time of the last general election, she has no personal mandate as leader. She has a slim majority in Parliament, a potential problem if negotiations with the European Union become contentious and opponents threaten to obstruct some of the domestic legislation she needs to pass.
‘A general election is the best way to strengthen Britain’s hand in the negotiations ahead.’
That being the case, May’s about-face on a general election was most likely shaped by a desire to increase her majority in Parliament at a time when the main opposition party, Labour, is languishing in the opinion polls under the leadership of Corbyn.
A general election would add to a period of extraordinary turbulence in British politics. Cameron won his unexpected, if small, majority in Parliament in 2015, and soon afterward Labour took a hard left turn, electing Corbyn as its leader. Then Cameron, who favored remaining in the European Union, lost his referendum bet last year, resulting in a reversal of four decades of European integration and creating extreme uncertainty over Britain’s future economic ties to its closest partners.
Voters are unlikely to relish the prospect of another election and, given the volatility of politics, it is possible — though unlikely — that May’s decision could backfire. Critics argue that she risks sacrificing her image as a straight player.
In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday, May said her opponents in Parliament had sought to “frustrate the Brexit process,” but she conceded that she had suffered no defeats in the House of Commons on the issue.
Many analysts say that the prime minister was unable to resist taking advantage of very strong support in opinion polls for the Conservative Party.
After May’s announcement on Tuesday, the pound rose against other currencies, suggesting that the financial markets believe that May will win a larger majority in Parliament and a smoother path to leaving the European Union.