May Chases an Early U.K. Election in Gamble for Brexit Unity

  • Premier has 21-point lead in opinion poll after announcement
  • Says voters should unite behind her EU negotiating stance

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Theresa May calls for an early general election to expedite the Brexit process. (Source: Bloomberg)

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U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May called for an early election on June 8, seeking a personal mandate and parliamentary backing to take her through Brexit talks. The pound surged.

The Conservatives have a 21-point poll lead and May -- who became prime minister without an election -- is betting she can extend the slim parliamentary majority her predecessor won in 2015. May said the existing schedule for an election in 2020, just after the deadline for an exit deal with the European Union, posed a threat to a successful Brexit.

Snap Election: How it Happened

The pound strengthened to the highest this year on the expectation that May will be able to extend her majority and silence critics on both wings of her party. An election victory may also make it easier for the government to make concessions in EU talks, and could reduce the risk of the U.K. leaving without a deal, according to Eurasia Group.

A parliamentary vote to allow the election will be held Wednesday afternoon. Some 55 percent of people support her call for an election less than a year after coming to power, according to a poll by ICM after her announcement that gave the Conservatives a 21-point lead over Labour.

May’s decision is a reversal on her previous stance, and she said she’d made it “reluctantly.” She told ITV in an interview that she decided during a walking holiday with her husband in Wales.

It’s not without risks. The election could embolden those who regret voting for Brexit in last year’s referendum and will probably increase support for independence in Scotland, coming weeks after May rejected Scotland’s call for a second independence referendum. Still, the Labour Party is riven by internal conflicts, the pro-European Liberal Democrats have just nine seats in Parliament and no clear anti-Brexit figurehead has emerged since last year’s vote.

“There should be unity here in Westminster but instead there is division,” May said in a statement outside her Downing Street residence on Tuesday. “The country is coming together but Westminster is not.”

Brexit Threats

May argued that delays in beginning negotiations with the EU gave her a unique window to secure her own mandate and said threats by opposition parties to try to undermine her Brexit stance made this necessary.

Her current polling lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party means she can be fairly confident of increasing her majority and bringing Tory lawmakers into Parliament who will back her on the flavor of Brexit that she prefers. Moreover, a survey last week by Orb International showed that 55 percent of Britons support her handling of Brexit talks.

Her campaign will be run by Lynton Crosby, who led the Conservatives’ unexpectedly successful campaign in 2015, according to a person familiar with the plans.

Is May’s Call for an Early Election a Risky Move?

“This is Theresa May’s attempt to free herself from some of the constraints she’s under and get the mandate to execute the hard Brexit she’s been talking about,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of the Eurasia Group. “She sees an opportunity to win the election, secure a bigger mandate and execute the hard Brexit.”

Parliament Vote

Unlike almost all her predecessors, May cannot simply ask the queen to dissolve parliament and call an election. A 2011 law passed by Prime Minister David Cameron during his coalition government with the Liberal Democrats means there are two circumstances in which there could be an early election: If two-thirds of the House of Commons votes for one or if the government loses a no-confidence vote and a new administration fails to win a confidence motion within 14 days.

In her statement May said she was taking the first course of action. “Tomorrow I will move a motion in the House of Commons calling for a general election to be held on the June 8,” she said. Her office said that if this is passed, Parliament will dissolve on May 3.

Ministers and officials remain in their jobs throughout the election period, May’s spokesman James Slack said, denying that her decision offers the opposite of the sort of “stability” the prime minister said she wants to deliver.

The vote will need the backing of a substantial number of opposition lawmakers, including many from Labour. Corbyn responded by saying that he welcomes an election, meaning the vote should pass. For the Liberal Democrats, leader Tim Farron also signaled he’d support the motion and urged voters who oppose leaving the EU to back his party.

“If you want to avoid a disastrous hard Brexit, if you want to keep Britain in the single market, if you want a Britain that is open, tolerant and united, this is your chance,” he said.

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