LONDON (REUTERS, AFP) - British Prime Minister Theresa May called on Tuesday (April 18) for an early election on June 8, saying she needed to strengthen her hand in divorce talks with the European Union by shoring up support for her Brexit plan.
Standing outside her Downing Street office, May said she had been reluctant about asking parliament to back her move to bring forward the election from 2020, but decided it was necessary to win support for her ruling Conservative Party’s efforts to press ahead with Britain’s departure from the EU.
“I have just chaired a meeting of the cabinet where we agreed that the government should call a General Election to be held on the 8th of June,” May said in a surprise statement.
“It was with reluctance that I decided the country needs this election, but it is with strong conviction that I say it is necessary to secure the strong and stable leadership the country needs to see us through Brexit and beyond.”
May warned that "division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit". "Every vote for the Conservatives will make it harder for opposition politicians who want to stop me from getting the job done.”
Some were surprised by her move – she has repeatedly said she does not want to be distracted by time-consuming campaigning - but opinion polls give her a strong lead and she has faced opposition from her own party for some of her domestic reforms.
May said she would introduce legislation on Wednesday to pave the way for the early election.
The pound strengthened by almost half a cent against the dollar as May spoke, reflecting investor relief that earlier rumours of a shock resignation did not transpire.
Ten-year British government bond yields rose slightly.
Britain’s next election was due to have been held in 2020 – a date enshrined in legislation according to which elections have to be held every five years in the month of May.
But the law can be overruled if two-thirds of lawmakers in the British parliament vote in favour of early elections – something that the leader of the opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, had previously indicated he would do.
In an emailed statement on Tuesday, Corbyn said he welcomed May's decision to call the election, indicating his party will provide the support she needs under electoral law to hold one.
“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.
“Labour 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,” he added. “We look forward to showing how Labour will stand up for the people of Britain.”
The dramatic announcement comes after months of tumult in British politics following the Brexit vote.
May’s Conservatives, who were split on the issue of EU membership ahead of last year’s referendum, are currently far ahead of Labour, according to opinion polls over the Easter weekend.
The Conservatives polled at between 38 per cent and 46 per cent, with Labour at 23 per cent to 29 per cent, according to the polls by YouGov, ComRes and Opinium.
The poll lead had prompted many senior Conservatives to call for an election, particularly as May will need a strong parliamentary majority as she seeks to negotiate Britain's exit from the EU.
The Conservatives currently have a working majority of just 17 from the last election in 2015 and some of their MPs have indicated they could vote against the government on key aspects of Brexit legislation.
"There is no doubt that the Conservatives are in a strong position in the opinion polls," said John Curtice, a polling expert and professor at the University of Strathclyde. “That clearly would be enough to give Theresa May a quite substantial majority.” “In a sense she’s essentially saying the reason we need to have this (election) is because ‘we need a government that has a clear majority that’s committed to the version of Brexit I want’."
EU leaders except May are set to hold a summit on April 29 where they will agree on the strategy for negotiating Britain's expected departure in 2019.
The negotiations themselves are not expected to start until May or June at the earliest. The European Commission has said it wants the exit talks to be concluded by October 2018 at the latest.
In its response, the EU said the negotiating guidelines it is forging for Britain’s exit will not be affected by the early election. “The UK elections do no change our EU27 plans,” said Preben Aamann, spokesman for Donald Tusk, president of the European Council of the remaining 27 member states.
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May came to power in July 2016 after her predecessor David Cameron resigned following the shock Brexit referendum vote in June for which he had campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU.
Corbyn, a veteran socialist with support on the left of the party, won the Labour leadership in September 2015 after the party’s defeat in that year’s election.
Corbyn, 67, enjoys grassroots support from left-wingers but is opposed by most of the party’s more centrist lawmakers, who say that Labour under his leadership is not appealing to the middle classes.
May in contrast has scored consistently well in terms of personal popularity and polls have shown approval of her handling of the run-up to Brexit negotiations.
When asked who they thought would be the best prime minister, 50 per cent of respondents in the YouGov poll said May and only 14 per cent said Corbyn.
Responding to the move, Scotland said the decision gives it a chance to reinforce its democratic mandate to hold an independence referendum.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose Scottish National Party (SNP) is seeking a referendum on independence from Britain, said in a statement: “In terms of Scotland, this move is a huge political miscalculation by the Prime Minister."
“It will once again give people the opportunity to reject the (Conservative government’s) narrow, divisive agenda, as well as reinforcing the democratic mandate which already exists for giving the people of Scotland a choice on their future,” she said.
Scots voted by a 10-point margin in 2014 to stay part of Britain, but Sturgeon’s party wants a new referendum within the next two years, arguing that Britain’s vote to leave the EU changes the circumstances fundamentally.
May, the 60-year-old daughter of a vicar, is Britain’s second prime minister after Margaret Thatcher and many commentators have drawn comparisons to the steely determination of the “Iron Lady”.
May worked in finance, including at the Bank of England, before being elected as MP for the London commuter town of Maidenhead in 1997.
As Conservative chairwoman in 2002, she made waves by suggesting the Tories were seen as “the nasty party” and needed to overhaul their image – something that they did under Cameron’s leadership.
When the Conservatives won the 2010 general election, May was named home secretary, the hardest job in government which has wrecked a string of other political careers.