LONDON – After months of rumors that began in the aftermath of the June 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May announced on Tuesday morning that the United Kingdom will head to the polls on June 8.
The announcement follows May’s repeated claims that she had no interest in calling an early general election and intended, instead, to wait until the previously scheduled date for Britain’s next election, 2020.
Speaking outside 10 Downing Street, May said, “Britain is leaving the European Union and there can be no turning back. And as we look to the future, the government has the right plan for negotiating our new relationship with Europe. The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.”
May also made it clear that the decision was made on the basis that she wished to strengthen her and the government’s hand.
“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.
“Every vote for the Conservatives will make it harder for opposition politicians who want to stop me from getting the job done,” she added.
Responding to the announcement, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said in a statement: “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. 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 the NHS [National Health Service].”
The decision, which took the country and Westminster by surprise, came on the back of two polls released over the weekend that put the Conservatives at over 40%, with a 21-point lead over Labour.
The current government, which has a slender working majority of 17, is seen as likely to make significant gains in the election, with Labour polling so low that they could secure as few as 150 seats, their smallest haul since the general election of 1935.
As articulated by May in her announcement of the June poll, it is likely that the central issue of the election will be the question of who is best suited to orchestrate Britain’s exit from the EU. Though both the Conservative and Labour parties voted in favor of triggering Article 50 in May, the Liberal Democrat Party, which was decimated in the 2015 election, is seen as likely to make gains in June due to its pro-EU position.
In response to May’s announcement, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron set out his party’s stall, saying, “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. Only the Liberal Democrats can prevent a Conservative majority.”
May’s decision to call an early election also gives Scotland a chance to reinforce its democratic mandate to hold an independence referendum, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon suggested on Tuesday.
“In terms of Scotland, this move is a huge political miscalculation by the prime minister,” said Sturgeon, whose Scottish National Party is seeking a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. “It will once again give people the opportunity to reject the [Conservative government’s] narrow, divisive agenda, as well as reinforcing the democratic mandate which already exists for giving the people of Scotland a choice on their future.”
Sturgeon has called for an independence vote in late 2018 or early 2019, before Brexit takes effect, but May has rebuffed her calls, saying that now is not the time to revisit the independence issue.