UK leader seeks snap June 8 election to bolster Brexit hand
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 (EU) 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 Street. 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 programmes 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 demoralised 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.
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 per cent against the dollar to $1.2658, recovering from a 0.4 per cent drop an hour earlier as rumours swirled about the surprise statement.