LONDON – Delivering the latest jolt in Britain’s year of political shocks, Prime Minister Theresa May called Tuesday for a snap June 8 general election, seeking to strengthen her hand in European Union exit talks and tighten her grip on a fractious Conservative Party.
With the Labour opposition weakened, May’s gamble will probably pay off with an enhanced Conservative majority in Parliament — but it’s unlikely to unite a country deeply split over the decision to quit the EU.
May returned from an Easter break in the Welsh mountains to announce that she would make a televised statement on an undisclosed subject early Tuesday outside 10 Downing St. Speculation swirled and the pound plunged against the dollar amid uncertainty about whether she planned to resign, call an election or even declare war.
Since taking office after her predecessor David Cameron resigned in the wake of Britain’s June 23 vote to leave the EU, May had repeatedly ruled out going to the polls before the next scheduled election in 2020. But on Tuesday, she said she had “reluctantly” changed her mind because political divisions “risk our ability to make a success of Brexit.”
“We need a general election and we need one now,” May said. “Because we have, at this moment, a one-off chance to get this done, while the European Union agrees its negotiating position and before the detailed talks begin.”
For decades British prime ministers could call elections at will, but that changed with the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which established set polling days every five years. Now, the prime minister needs the backing of two-thirds of lawmakers and May said she would put her election call to the House of Commons on Wednesday.
“Let us tomorrow vote for an election. Let us put forward our plans for Brexit and our alternative programs for government and then let the people decide,” May said.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, welcomed May’s announcement, making it very likely she will get lawmakers’ backing for an election.
May’s governing Conservatives currently have a slight majority, with 330 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons.
With Labour demoralized and divided under left-wing leader 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 hard-liners within her own party who want a no-compromise “hard Brexit” that many economists fear could be devastating.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said that even for a cautious politician like May, the temptation of an early election was irresistible.
“She has a small majority, a big task ahead of her and a huge opinion poll lead,” he said. “If you put all those things together they equal a general election.”
Bale said a bigger majority would give May a new batch of loyal Conservative lawmakers and leave her less at the mercy of euroskeptics in her party “who otherwise could have made negotiations much more difficult.”
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.
European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted that he had a “good phone call” with May about the election, and the council said the bloc’s Brexit plans were unchanged by the announcement. Leaders of EU states are due to adopt negotiating guidelines at an April 29 summit, and the bloc will prepare detailed plans for the talks with Britain by late May.
Labour, the second-largest party in Parliament, campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU, but Corbyn said he would respect voters’ decision to leave. He said Tuesday that Labour’s election platform in June would be for a more equal society and economy, and “a Brexit that works for all.”
Polls give May’s Conservatives a double-digit lead over Labour, which could have its worst election showing in decades. But the election still carries risk for May, with voters’ potentially wary at being asked to go to the polls again, less than a year after the EU referendum.
“I think actually it makes her look a little bit arrogant and a little bit complacent,” said Liberal Democrat lawmaker Alistair Carmichael. “She’s taking people for granted already and voters never like that.”
The strongly pro-EU Liberal Democrats have seen thousands of new members join since the referendum and are likely to make gains. Leader Tim Farron said Tuesday that only his party can prevent a “disastrous hard Brexit.”
Rather than helping the country unite, the election could widen divisions within the United Kingdom. The U.K. voted 52 percent to 48 percent 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 the U.K.
Sturgeon said Tuesday that May was seeking “to crush the voices of people who disagree with her.”
It was “all the more important,” she said, “that Scotland is protected from a Tory (Conservative) 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.
Still, currency markets welcomed May’s announcement as a harbinger of greater stability. The pound surged 0.7 percent against the dollar to $1.2658, recovering from a 0.4 percent drop an hour earlier as rumors swirled about the surprise statement.