Add another election to this spring’s political calendar: in a surprise reversal from Downing Street, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she would be calling snap elections on June 8 as she pursues a mandate for Brexit negotiations. Financial Times:
Mrs May said she had “only recently and reluctantly” concluded that an election was desirable, and blamed opposition parties and the House of Lords for weakening her negotiating position with the EU. “Division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit,” she said, from a lectern on Downing Street. “The decision facing the country will be all about leadership.”
The prime minister had previously said categorically that the next general election would be held as scheduled in 2020; many Conservative party backbenchers had also shown little enthusiasm for an early vote. “It isn’t going to happen. There is not going to be a general election,” her spokesman said on March 20.
She is understood to have changed her mind after taking advice from senior figures including Sir Lynton Crosby, mastermind of the 2015 election campaign. Two polls over the Easter weekend put the Conservatives 21 points ahead of Labour, a lead that, if translated into votes, would greatly increase the party’s existing working Commons majority of 17.
May will need a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons to approve a motion for early elections, and she looks set to get it: both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have welcomed a chance to challenge the Conservatives. But although the opposition is spinning this as a chance to gain ground against the Tories, May’s decision represents a sign of confidence in her own position—and a recognition that the opposition is in disarray.
According to a recent poll, 55% of British voters support May’s handling of Brexit negotiations, while one pollster recently predicted that the Tories could gain a 100-seat majority in the House of Commons this year. Meanwhile, Labour is polling worse than it has since 2009, and its far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn remains so controversial that only 38% of his own party would prefer him as Prime Minister over May.
With favorable figures like those, May has good reason to believe she can achieve the personal mandate she lacked when she first ascended to Downing Street, and shore up her domestic support before plunging into protracted and difficult Brexit negotiations. And by running on a new party election manifesto that incorporates May’s preferred Brexit stance—instead of David Cameron’s leftover one that promised to keep the UK in the single market—it will be constitutionally more difficult for the House of Lords to oppose her.
In any case, reactions to May’s announcement have already shown how far the needle has shifted on Brexit. As British voters look across the Channel to a continent in turmoil, there is hardly a credible voice left in England to wholeheartedly defend the European project, or pretend that the UK could turn back on its vote. At this point, even the pro-European Liberal Democrats are merely haggling over terms, arguing that the election is a chance to “avoid a disastrous Hard Brexit” and keep the UK in the single market. Corbyn’s statement, meanwhile, ignored Brexit entirely to ding May over the economy and social spending cuts: another sign of his divided party’s incoherent and noncommittal position on Brexit terms.
There are risks to May’s gambit: there’s a chance that the Liberal Democrats decimated in 2015 could pick up more seats, that the snap elections could further galvanize the Scottish National Party’s calls for another independence referendum, and that a dramatic loss by Labour could force out Corbyn as party leader, in favor of a more electable future challenger. But all things considered, May is sitting pretty, and an early election should help her gain political capital that will prove useful in the years of bitter divorce talks to come.