U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday called for a snap election to be held June 8. May argued that “the only way to guarantee certainty and security for years ahead is to hold this election.” The House of Commons is expected to hold a vote Wednesday to approve May’s plan. So what’s going on?
What is a snap election?
British general elections are held every five years under the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Former Tory leader David Cameron won the 2015 election, so the next U.K. vote was scheduled for 2020. However, the majority party can seek to call an early (or “snap”) election, should they choose. That’s what happened on Tuesday. Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has said his party will vote in favor of holding the election, so Britons will most likely be heading to the polls in two months.
Why has May called it?
The snap election is almost entirely about domestic politics. May, formerly home secretary in the British government, was not elected prime minister, nor was she elected leader of the Conservatives. Her party elevated her to that position in the turbulent days of June 2016, after Cameron resigned following his defeat in the Brexit referendum. All of May’s rivals for the top job dropped out, so she became PM.
As such, May is trying to push through the U.K.’s exit from Europe ― the biggest political shift in British national identity in decades ― in the absence of a political mandate of her own.
Winning the snap election would not only solidify May’s position as Tory leader, but would allow her to claim that the public has backed her plan for how to extract Britain from the European Union. As May said Tuesday: “There should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division. The country is coming together, but Westminster is not. We need a general election and we need one now.”
Isn’t she taking a risk?
Not really. Labour, the Tories’ traditional rival for majority party, is currently in disarray due to Corbyn’s contentious leadership. Corbyn is a firebrand whose left-wing policies are not supported by a majority of his own MPs. According to the polling firm YouGov, Labour is currently polling at around 23 percent, far behind the Conservatives’ 44 percent.
The 2015 election gave the Tories a small working majority of 17 seats in Parliament ― enough to govern, but only just. By calling a snap election, May hopes to take advantage of the Labour crisis and increase the number of Tory seats in Westminster, giving her more room to push through her own policy agenda, including education reform.
Research also shows that May has strong personal support from the electorate, with a recent YouGov poll suggesting that 48 percent of Britons are confident she can successfully shepherd the U.K. out of Europe. She’s in a very strong position.
Could this derail Brexit?
No. Even if Labour were a functioning opposition party, their platform is to honor the result of the Brexit referendum and take Britain out of the EU. The Liberal Democrats are running on a platform of holding a second referendum in the hope of reversing the Brexit decision, but they’re polling at around 12 percent and have no chance of becoming the majority party. Article 50 has been triggered; barring something massively unforeseen, Brexit is happening. As May said, “Britain is leaving the European Union and there can be no turning back.” Moreover, winning a snap election could give May a stronger hand in dealing with Brussels in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
What will happen to the other parties?
One Labour MP has already said he will not stand for election under Corbyn’s leadership. Others will likely follow, and the party could lose scores of parliamentary seats in June. It’s unlikely that Corbyn’s leadership will be challenged ahead of the election, but should he lose heavily in the election, his slightly madcap tenure as leader could end. The Liberal Democrats will likely pick up seats, but not enough to challenge the Tories.
Are we in for another election surprise?
It’s very unlikely. There is no credible challenge to May; the question is whether she’ll win big or very big. Then again, Donald Trump is currently eating lunch off the Resolute desk, so who knows...
Ned Simons contributed reporting.