LONDON - It’s a sunny Tuesday morning, smack in the middle of British schoolchildren’s Easter Holiday, and the prime minister has suddenly called an unscheduled, and rare, press conference outside her office at 10 Downing Street. Immediately everyone across London was buzzing: “Will she or Won’t she?”
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As it turns out, she did.
Theresa May, the no-nonsense politician daughter of a vicar who became head of the Conservative Party, and head of the U.K. just ten months ago, called Tuesday for new and early elections.
Why early elections?
When she launched her bid for Prime Minister, on the heels of her predecessor David Cameron’s unsuccessful bid to convince the country to remain in the European Union, and his subsequent resignation - May ruled out any possibility of more elections. All she wanted to do, she assured the country, was to “get on with the job.”
As recently as last month, Downing Street put out a statement saying that “early elections are not going to happen.”
And yet, May has also been dropping hints in interviews since September that early elections might be the best way for her to properly consolidate her own mandate and get the kind of backing and approval she needs for her strategy to exit the European Union.
It’s all about Brexit, basically.
Despite having been, like Cameron, in the “Remain” camp, and having voted not to leave the EU, May, as Prime Minister, insisted that there would be no second referendum or no re-discussing; 52 percent of voters had chosen to leave the EU - and that is what Britain would be doing. “The campaign was fought ... and the public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door ... Brexit means Brexit,” was and is her line.
The formal divorce process from the EU finally began last month – and is expected to take two years to hammer out.
On Tuesday, in front of Downing Street, May spoke of the government’s plans for the Brexit negotiations, and of her plan, which would allow “the U.K. to regain control of its laws and borders.” It is, she stressed, “the right approach,” but also one that “other parties oppose.” And this, she explained, is exactly why she has changed her tune on new elections: May is not prepared to allow for game playing by her opponents that would jeopardize her version of the Brexit negotiations or her legacy.
By giving a short six weeks window for the elections, May seems to be hoping to get the election out of way, win herself a majority and a five-year mandate, and not allow any of this to interfere with the critical Brexit negotiations.
If she waited until 2020 – when elections were scheduled for – she could have found herself weakened, going to the polls on the defensive and needing to explain her Brexit compromises. There is no doubt she would have had to do battle with the opposition parties as well as with the hard and soft liners within her own party to get her way in those negotiations. If she wins the elections in June, she can shrug off the image of herself as just “Cameron’s replacement,” and her mandate will be strengthened.
Who will be running?
The Center Left Labour party has been led, since 2015, by Jeremy Corbyn, a hard left, unpopular and controversial leader who is seen as the main reason the party has lost so much support. Corbyn put out a statement welcoming the early elections. But neither he, nor his party, are in good shape to run – and certainly not win - a swift election. Infighting is rife, and there is no clear voice on how Brexit should, or should not, look either.
The Scottish National Party has recently become the third largest party in Parliament and is led by Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP, having been staunchly in the Remain camp during the referendum, now wants another referendum on Scottish independence (they already had one in 2014, which they lost.) Sturgeon argues that Scots have been taken out of the EU against their will and that this calls for another Independence vote.
The centrist, pro remain Liberal Democrats, led today by Tim Farron, have lost much ground since 2015 and see these new elections as a chance to claw back some power. “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 tweet.
Finally, UKIP, Britain’s Eurosceptic and right-wing populist political party, is weakened at the moment - both by the replacement of their long time charismatic leader Nigel Farage with Paul Nuttall and by their pro Brexit message having been co-opted by May.
Who will win?
May called for elections now because she thinks she and her party will win them. At the moment the Conservative Party holds a slim majority of the 330 seats in the 650-member House of Commons. She knows she can do better.
The latest YouGov poll, which came Monday, sees her Conservative party winning 44 percent of the vote if an election were to take place today, trailed by the Labour party with 23 percent of the vote. The Liberal Democrats are predicted to get 12 percent of the vote and UKIP - 10 percent.
That same YouGov poll asked the question: “Which of the following do you think would make the best Prime Minister?” A full fifty percent chose May, with a mere 14 opting for Corbyn. The other 36 percent made do with “I don’t know.”
All this said, as both the Brexit referendum and then November’s elections in the U.S. have shown, it’s never possible to be sure of anything. In the unlikely case of a loss, or even a weak showing by May, talks between Britain and the other 27 EU members would be thrown into disarray all over again.