The only real surprise in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement Tuesday to call an early general election is that it took everyone in London by surprise.
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Most pundits and commentators have been saying for months that the cautious Ms. May would most likely stick with the original timetable of holding the next election in 2020. But May is not just cautious, she is also highly secretive. Her close circle includes only her two chiefs of staff and her husband Philip – and it's a circle that doesn’t leak information and had kept everyone guessing until the very moment she stepped out to the podium in front of 10 Downing Street.
It really shouldn’t be a surprise: This is the ideal time for May to hold an election. Over the weekend two polls showed her Conservative Party holding a massive 21-point lead over the Labour Party, and the Tories have only a 10-MP majority in Parliament now. With numbers like these, the prime minister stands to win a majority of anywhere between 100 and 200 seats there, in the vote slated for June 8.
May has one huge electoral asset – Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Fifty percent of the British public, according to the surveys, see her as the best candidate for prime minister. Corbyn is in third place after the “don’t know”s, with only 16 percent supporting him. Under his hapless leadership, not only has Labour plummeted in the polls, but it has been split between a largely ultra-left Corbynite membership and a much more centrist parliamentary group, 90 percent of whom have not endorsed their leader.
Corbyn’s incoherent and unprofessional political management and the Labour infighting has made it all but impossible for the party to speak on the main issues of the day, especially on the path Britain should be taking as it negotiates its exit from the European Union. Unless Corbyn is suddenly revealed as an inspiring and efficient campaigner – and the fact that it took him half an hour to even respond to May’s announcement once again proves there’s no chance of that happening – Labour stands to be annihilated at the polls. It is on an almost-certain path to losing scores of seats both to the Tories and quite a few to the Liberal-Democrats, now the only remaining nation-wide pro-EU party. The Scottish National Party, also pro-EU, has already wiped out all but one of Labour’s seats in Scotland.
Another electoral advantage to May's decision to call a snap election now is that the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party, which until recently was eating into the Conservatives’ majorities in constituencies across the country, is also in disarray at present. UKIP is torn over the direction the party should take now that it’s main policy – leaving the EU – has been adopted following last year’s referendum. UKIP voters have been streaming back to the Tories.
Assuming that in seven weeks' time, May, who became prime minister just nine months ago, following David Cameron’s resignation, does emerge victorious and with an enhanced majority – she will have her own personal mandate. She hopes this will give her more power during the difficult Brexit negotiations.
The British election will take place simultaneously with elections in France and Germany, and at the end of the summer the new, or re-elected, leaders of the three largest countries in Europe will sit down and try and work out the Continent’s future.
Another political advantage of holding the election in Britain now is that the Brexit process has not yet caused major turmoil in the country's economy, so it's better for the government to go to the polls now, before that happens.
For the British, the choice between May, 60, and Corbyn, 67, is an odd one. This is the first time in 66 years that both leaders of the main parties are sexagenarians. After a generation of young centrist leaders, as it faces an uncertain future outside Europe, Britain will be choosing between two representatives of very different British political traditions: Theresa May, the daughter of a vicar and epitome of conservative (with a small "C") England, and veteran left-wing campaigner Jeremy Corbyn, an eternal rebel even within Labour.
Britain hasn’t had such a stark choice facing it in a generation.