By Karla Adam,
LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May called Tuesday for an early election on June 8, seeking to cement her political backing as Britain moves ahead with the difficult negotiations on its break from the European Union.
The surprise announcement — made outside her office at 10 Downing Street — also comes amid internal political strains over Brexit and moves by Scotland to possible carve its own independent path to remain in the European Union.
“I have concluded the only way to guarantee certainty and stability for the years ahead is to hold this election and seek your support for the decisions I have to make,” she said.
Last month, Britain submitted its formal request to begin E.U. exit negotiations.
Theresa May became prime minister in July, shortly after the referendum that set in motion Britain’s E.U. divorce and prompted the resignation of her predecessor, David Cameron.
Part of the election call by May is to seek her own political mandate and shrug off the image as Cameron’s replacement after he bet wrong on the Brexit referendum.
May has consolidated power within the Conservative party. But the lack of her own popular mandate had threatened to become a liability as Britain begins to reckon with the inevitable trade-offs that come with the tricky Brexit talks.
Still, May is taking something of a political gambit with elections set for just two weeks before the anniversary of the Brexit referendum.
If her Conservative party wins the snap elections, she will have the mandate to pursue her own agenda as she heads into negotiations as Britain exits the European Union — not the one set out by her predecessor Cameron.
But a loss — considered unlikely at the moment — would throw deep uncertainly into the complex talks ahead between Britain and the other 27 E.U. members, and would reflect important shifts in the British sentiment since last year’s referendum.
Polls show that the Conservative party has strong lead over the opposition Labour party of more than 20 points. But the announcement still caught some off guard because Downing Street as repeatedly denied that May would seek an early election. The next one was scheduled for 2020.
May has repeatedly insisted she would not seek an early election, saying that the country needs to focus its attention on negotiating the terms of Brexit with its soon-to-be-former European partners, not domestic politics.
But the temptation to call a new vote was strong, and allies had been pushing for her to break her vow.
May enters the campaign from a position of strength.
Her Conservative Party has a wide lead over its main rival, the center-left Labour Party, which has been at war with itself since the election of the far-left Jeremy Corbyn as leader in September 2015.
A recent poll showed that, in a head-to-head matchup between May and Corbyn, not even a majority of Labour votes would want Corbyn as their prime minister.
Corbyn welcomed the decision as a chance to “give the British people the chance to vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first.”
Other parties are similarly weakened. The far-right U.K. Independence Party has lost its charismatic leader, Nigel Farage, and its central message — that Britain needs to get out of the E.U. — has been co-opted by May. The centrist Liberal Democrats were all-but-wiped out in the 2015 election, though they will hope to rally the Brexit referendum’s “remain” voters around their unapologetically pro-European stance.
May planned to seek Parliament backing on Wednesday for the June 8 elections.
It is rare for leaders to make statement outside Number 10 Downing Street — it’s usually reserved as the setting for major announcements.
“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.”
She said that she “recently and reluctantly” decided to call early elections, acknowledging that she has repeatedly said that there should be no general election until 2020.
But she said that it was the only way to guarantee stability and to stop the “game-playing” in Westminster. She cited several examples of what she called “division” in Westminster, including the Labour party, which she noted has threatened to vote against the final deal negotiated with the European Union.
Tim Farron, the leader of the pro-European Liberal Democrat party, said the election call offered an opportunity to urge May to take a more conciliatory line in the E.U. talks.
Some critics worry that Britain could lose important trade status and other links to Europe by pushing for what May called a full-break from Britain. There are also concerns for over the estimated 3 million E.U. citizens working and living Britain, and more than 1 million Britons across Europe. May said she would seek to preserve their rights, but some E.U. officials have suggested they will take a hard line with Britain in the talks.
“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,” he said in a statement.
Although Britain as a whole voted 52 to 48 percent in favor of leaving of the European Union, majorities in both Scotland and Northern Ireland favored staying in the E.U.
Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has charged that Scottish voters are being taken out of the bloc against their will, and she said last week that she wants a referendum on independence — a rerun of a September 2014 vote, in which a majority of Scottish voters opted to stay in the United Kingdom — between the autumn of 2018 and the spring of 2019.
May has sharply criticized that call. She said over the weekend that “now is not the time” for a Scottish vote. But she has not threatened to veto another referendum.
Moments after the election call, Sturgeon described it as an attempt by May to move the Conservative party to the right and “force through a hard Brexit and impose deeper cuts.”
“Let’s stand up for Scotland,” she wrote.
Griff Witte in Paris and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.