In a surprise move, British prime minister calls for early election, hoping to show voters still back ‘Brexit’

In a stunning announcement, Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday called for an early general election to be held June 8 to seek a strong mandate as she negotiates Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Standing outside 10 Downing Street, May said she would ask the House of Commons on Wednesday to back her call for an election, three years before the next scheduled date in May 2020.

She said that since Britons voted to leave the EU in June, the country had come together, but politicians had not. She said the political divisions “risk our ability to make a success of Brexit.”

On the news, the pound surged 0.7% against the dollar, to $1.2658, recovering from a 0.4% drop an hour earlier as rumors swirled about the surprise statement.

At present, May’s governing Conservatives have 330 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons. May said, “Our opponents believe that because the government’s majority is so small, our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change course” on leaving the EU.

“They are wrong,” she said. “They underestimate our determination to get the job done and I am not prepared to let them endanger the security of millions of working people across the country.”

Under Britain’s Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, elections are held every five years, but the prime minister can call a snap election if two-thirds of lawmakers vote for it.

That is highly likely to happen on Wednesday. Labor Party leader Corbyn said he welcomed May’s decision “to give the British people the chance to vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first.”

Labor campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU, but Corbyn said he will respect voters’ decision to leave. He said Labor would fight the election promising a fairer society and economy, and “a Brexit that works for all.”

With Labor weakened and divided under Corbyn and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats holding just nine Commons seats, May is calculating that the election will bring her an expanded crop of Conservative lawmakers.

That would make it easier for her to ignore opposition calls for a softer EU exit — making compromises to retain some benefits of membership — and to face down hardliners within her own party who want a no-compromise “hard Brexit” that many economists fear could be devastating.

May triggered a two-year countdown to Britain’s exit from the EU last month, and high-stakes negotiations to settle divorce terms and agree on a new relationship are expected to start within weeks.

May took office in July after predecessor David Cameron stepped down following his failed attempt to get voters to back remaining in the EU. Since then, she has ruled out calling an early election to get her own mandate. But she said Tuesday she had “reluctantly” changed her mind.

“We need a general election and we need one now,” she said.

May said that if there is not an election soon, “the negotiations with the European Union will reach their most difficult stage in the run-up to the next scheduled election.”

Polls give May’s Conservatives a double-digit lead on Labor. But the election is still a risk for May, and could widen divisions within Britain. The country voted 52% to 48% to leave the EU, but Scotland backed remaining by a large majority, and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is seeking to hold a referendum on independence from Britain.

Sturgeon said Tuesday that May was seeking “to crush the voices of people who disagree with her.”

She said it was “all important that Scotland is protected from a Tory Party which now sees the chance of grabbing control of government for many years to come and moving the U.K. further to the right — forcing through a hard Brexit and imposing deeper cuts in the process.”

The Scottish National Party currently holds 54 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the British Parliament, making it the third-largest party there.


Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

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