LONDON – In a shock announcement, Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday called for an early general election to be held June 8 to seek a strong mandate as she negotiates Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Standing outside 10 Downing Street, May said she would ask the House of Commons on Wednesday to back her call for an election, just two years after the last vote and three years before the next scheduled date in May 2020.
She said that since Britons voted to leave the EU in June, the country had come together, but politicians had not. She said the political divisions “risk our ability to make a success of Brexit.”
At present, May’s governing Conservatives have a small majority, with 330 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons. May said that “our opponents believe that because the government’s majority is so small, our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change course” on leaving the EU.
“They are wrong,” she said. “They underestimate our determination to get the job done and I am not prepared to let them endanger the security of millions of working people across the country.”
May triggered a two-year countdown to Britain’s exit from the EU last month, and negotiations to settle divorce terms and agree on a new relationship are expected to start within weeks.
May said that if there is not an election soon, “the negotiations with the European Union will reach their most difficult stage in the run-up to the next scheduled election.”
“Division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit and it will cause damaging uncertainty and instability to the country,” she said.
Under Britain’s Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, elections are held every five years, but the prime minister can call a snap election if two-thirds of lawmakers vote for it.
The leader of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said he welcomed May’s decision “to give the British people the chance to vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first.”
“We look forward to showing how Labour will stand up for the people of Britain,” he said.
May took office in July after predecessor David Cameron stepped down following his failed attempt to get voters to back remaining in the EU. Since then she has repeatedly ruled out calling an early election to get her own mandate. But she said Tuesday she had “reluctantly” changed her mind.
Polls give May’s Conservatives a double-digit lead on Labour, which is divided under left-wing leader Corbyn.
The pound surged 0.7 percent against the dollar to $1.2658, recovering from a 0.4 percent drop an hour earlier as rumors swirled about the surprise statement.
By JILL LAWLESS – The Associated Press
Danica Kirka contributed to this story.