British Prime Minister Theresa May shocked the U.K. Tuesday when she called for an early general election on June 8, citing the need to strengthen the government’s hand as it enters into critical Brexit negotiations with the European Union.
May said the country needed strong, stable leadership as it sought to strike the best possible deal for leaving the EU – and that the government’s position was currently being undermined by opposition MPs who’ve threatened to vote against the final Brexit deal in Parliament.
“The country is coming together, but Westminster is not,” she said. “If we do not hold a general election now, their political game-playing will continue.”
May made the surprise announcement at a hastily convened press conference at 10 Downing Street, and claimed she had only recently decided that an early election was necessary. She has repeatedly – as recently as last month – said she would not call an early election.
“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,” she said.
She said that every vote for her party would strengthen the government’s position as it sought to secure a favorable deal with the E.U. on trade, security and other thorny issues, and “make it harder for opposition politicians who want to stop me from getting the job done.”
Under British law, general elections are scheduled to be held the first Thursday in May every five years, meaning the next elections were set for 2020. But early elections can be called if two-thirds of MPs in the House of Commons are in favor.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour party, said his party welcomed May’s call, indicating that the motion will pass when the issue is put to a vote in parliament Wednesday.
“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,” he said in a statement.
“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 (National Health Service).”
May said the timing was right to get an election out of the way while the EU was still deciding on its negotiating position, and before the Brexit negotiations began in earnest.
Polls suggest the timing is also good for her party, indicating the Conservatives should win by a landslide. The latest YouGov poll has the Conservatives at 44 percent, almost double the 23 percent support for Labour, the main opposition party.
Support for May as leader is even stronger, with 50 percent saying she would make the best prime minister, compared with just 14 percent for Corbyn.
Nicola Sturgeon, the head of Scotland’s devolved Parliament and leader of the Scottish National Party, described May’s call as “one of the most extraordinary U-turns in recent political history” and said the prime minister was “once again putting the interests of her party ahead of those of the country.”
In Scotland, where a majority of people voted to remain in the E.U., Brexit has sparked a renewed push for an independent Scotland, with the Scottish Parliament seeking permission from Westminster to hold a new referendum on Scottish independence – a move May says she won’t entertain until after Brexit is complete.
Sturgeon said an early election would give Scottish voters “the opportunity to reject the Tories’ narrow, divisive agenda, as well as reinforcing the democratic mandate which already exists for giving the people of Scotland a choice on their future.”
Tim Farron, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, said the election would provide the electorate with the “chance to change the direction of our country” for voters who want “to avoid a disastrous hard Brexit.” And Paul Nuttall, leader of the pro-Brexit U.K. Independence Party said he also welcomed the early election, but said May’s call for a snap election was “a cynical decision driven more by the weakness of Corbyn’s Labour party rather than the good of the country.”
The early election call is the latest twist in Britain’s ongoing political upheaval since the shock vote to leave the European Union last year. A June election would present the British public the first opportunity to vote directly on May’s leadership – she came to power after former Prime Minister David Cameron, who had campaigned against leaving the E.U., resigned in the wake of the result.
Although May personally was in favor of remaining in the E.U., she has said the referendum result must be respected, and has since signalled her intention to pursue what has been described as a “hard Brexit” – a clean break with the union, with no half-measures.