LONDON — Clearly anxious about her thin majority in Parliament before complicated negotiations on the British exit from the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday called for a snap election for June 8, a vote that her opponents will bill as a verdict on her tough brand of Brexit.
In breaking her often-repeated vow not to call an early election before 2020, May emphasized the need for unity in Parliament before undertaking what promises to be complex and tortuous negotiations on Britain’s exit from the bloc.
“The country is coming together, but Westminster is not,” May said in a sudden appearance outside the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing St., adding that she had “only recently and reluctantly come to this conclusion.”
Having fired the starting gun for two years of talks with Brussels and the other 27 members of the European Union only last month, May is already facing divisions within her own Conservative Party. She is clearly counting on a strong performance in June — before those talks get serious and difficult, before the British economy is seen to be hit and before critical German elections in the fall — to carry her government through the exit, hard or soft, which she has promised to deliver.
The financial markets bid up the pound on the news, apparently anticipating a Conservative sweep that would give May the mandate to override hard-liners in her own party who might resist concessions to the European Union in return for market access — the so-called soft Brexit.
Certainly, the Conservatives’ election prospects look promising. They are riding high in the opinion polls, with the Labor Party under Jeremy Corbyn in disarray, the centrist Liberal Democrats weak, and the shambolic far-right UK Independence Party, if anything, more a threat to Labor than to the Tories.
Although the margins are sure to tighten, the Conservatives hold a double-digit lead over Labor, which, if it holds up, would translate into a working majority in Parliament of over 100 seats, compared with only 17 seats now.
But the decision does carry political risks for May. For a politician who has cultivated a reputation as a straight shooter who puts country before party, the about-face on early elections could smack of opportunism. And in a year of election surprises, embittered but highly motivated voters from the Remain camp could coalesce behind one of the parties to register their anger over leaving the bloc.
“She presents herself as someone putting the national interest first, before her party, and someone who does not play political games,” said Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “It might bite her, but she’ll play the stability versus instability card.”
The last election was only in 2015, when David Cameron won a surprising but thin majority as the Labor Party lost heavily in Scotland and the Liberal Democrats were reduced to just eight seats in Parliament.
Labor’s choice of Corbyn, a man of the hard left, has proved hugely unpopular, but on Tuesday he issued a statement welcoming an early election, as politically he had to do. That makes it likely that Parliament on Wednesday will give May the two-thirds majority she needs to call an early election under the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, which otherwise mandates an election in May 2020.
“I welcome the prime minister’s decision to give the British people the chance to vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first,” Corbyn said in a statement. “Labor will be offering the country an effective alternative to a government that has failed to rebuild the economy, delivered falling living standards and damaging cuts to our schools and NHS,” the National Health Service.
Corbyn, 67, was elected after Labor’s bad defeat in 2015 and took the party strongly to the left. He was a weak supporter of the Remain campaign, and efforts by Labor legislators to unseat him have failed. He will lead a badly divided party and, should Labor lose this election, too, as expected, will be under considerable pressure to resign.
The Liberal Democrats, under a new leader, Tim Farron, have been explicitly against leaving the bloc and have called for another referendum on any final deal with Brussels. Though the Liberal Democrats are expected to win back some seats in June from the Conservatives, the Conservatives are expected to win more seats from Corbyn’s Labor Party, in that many Labor constituencies in Britain’s hard-pressed northern cities voted strongly for leaving.
‘The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.’
The Liberal Democrats have promised to bludgeon the Conservatives with the specter of a “hard Brexit,” in which Britain would leave the EU’s single market and customs union without a mitigating trade agreement.
On Tuesday, Farron said that “if you want to avoid a disastrous hard Brexit, if you want to keep Britain in the single market, if you want a Britain that is open, tolerant and united, this is your chance.”
“Only the Liberal Democrats can prevent a Conservative majority,” he added.
The leader of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party, was harsh, saying, “This announcement is one of the most extraordinary U-turns in recent political history, and it shows that Theresa May is once again putting the interests of her party ahead of those of the country.”
Sturgeon, who favors an independent Scotland but also wants to remain within the EU’s single market, said the snap election was about “standing up for Scotland in the face of a right-wing, austerity-obsessed Tory government with no mandate in Scotland but which now thinks it can do whatever it wants and get away with it.”