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British Prime Minister Theresa May walks out of 10 Downing Street to speak to media in central London on Tuesday. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister Theresa May walks out of 10 Downing Street to speak to media in central London on Tuesday. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

For Britain's May, a calculated election Brexit gamble Add to ...

British Prime Minister Theresa May has launched the country into a snap election campaign, hoping to build her own legacy as a leader who reshaped Britain and Europe.

On Tuesday, Ms. May reversed her long-held vow not to call an early election and announced plans to hold a vote on June 8. The decision came only a few days ago, she said, during a walking holiday in Wales with her husband. But the planning has clearly been on her mind ever since last July, when she became Prime Minister, and Conservative Party Leader, in the wake of the vote to leave the EU and the abrupt resignation of David Cameron, who was on the losing side.

Since then, Ms. May has tried to steer the country through the early stages of the Brexit process, triggering the EU exit mechanism last month and making it clear Britain would not be keeping any ties to the EU beyond a new trade deal that she wants to negotiate. She’s also laid out an ambitious domestic agenda that includes reforming the education system, overhauling the National Health Service and making businesses more responsive to investors. Now she is hoping she’ll have a mandate from voters to do all of that.

Explainer: Britain’s snap election: What’s next, and who stands to gain what

For subscribers: Stealing London: Post Brexit, there is a high-stakes fight to be Europe’s financial centre

Her election call has also sent more reverberations throughout Europe, which is already bracing for elections in France and Germany. Brexit talks between Britain and the EU are slated to begin this summer, and Ms. May is clearly hoping she will have a resounding mandate to set her own agenda for the discussions and lead the process.

“It was with reluctance that I decided the country needs this election, but it is with strong conviction that I say it is necessary to secure the strong and stable leadership the country needs to see us through Brexit and beyond,” Ms. May said Tuesday.

It’s a calculated gamble by a politician not known for taking risks.

Britain isn’t due for a scheduled election until May, 2020, and ever since she replaced Mr. Cameron as party leader, Ms. May has stuck to that timetable, brushing aside Conservative insiders who have been pushing for an early vote for months. She’s clearly been swayed by a series of positive opinion polls, the growing unpopularity of Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn and a recent Tory by-election win in a Labour stronghold. A snap poll released on Tuesday after Ms. May’s announcement gave the Tories a 21 point lead over Labour, the biggest lead for the Conservatives since the 1980s.

Ms. May has also been given a convenient window of opportunity. She triggered the EU exit mechanism in March, launching a complex negotiating process that’s expected to last at least two years. But face-to-face talks with the EU won’t start until this summer, meaning Ms. May has a chance to win a solid mandate from British voters before negotiations begin. Expanding the Tories’ slim 17-seat majority would also allow her to quell internal dissension from fierce pro-Brexit backbenchers who grumble any time Ms. May fails to toe a hard line with the EU.

“It’s absolutely the rational choice,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “She’ll win easily and with the kind of majority that will both crush Labour and mean she won’t be so beholden to the Brexit ultras on her backbenches: truly a win-win. The miracle is that she’s resisted the temptation until now – and managed to spring a genuine surprise on some of those closest to her who believed she didn’t do politics as usual. Well this is politics as usual – the PM who’s sure she’s going to win calling an election – with a vengeance.”

A resounding victory would also give Ms. May the opportunity to pursue her domestic priorities and set the stage for future wins. “It would open the possibility of a pretty long, secure, stretch in office to pursue whatever she wants to do in the long run,” said Robert Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester. “She’d be in a position to really aim as high as she wants.”

But there are risks as well. While the Labour Party is divided, other opposition parties have put up a strong challenge to Ms. May’s handling of Brexit. The Liberal Democrats won a by-election last fall on a platform of pushing to keep Britain in the European single market, something Ms. May has rejected as she opts for a clean break with the EU. That message could begin to resonate if enough voters are feeling uneasy about Brexit. “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,” said Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron.

The Scottish National Party too has posed a threat to Ms. May. The SNP holds nearly every seat in Scotland and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is pushing for a second referendum on Scottish independence because a majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU last June.

“This announcement is one of the most extraordinary U-turns in recent political history, and it shows that Theresa May is once again putting the interests of her party ahead of those of the country,” Ms. Sturgeon said Tuesday. “In terms of Scotland, this move is a huge political miscalculation by the Prime Minister. It will once again give people the opportunity to reject the Tories’ narrow, divisive agenda, as well as reinforcing the democratic mandate which already exists for giving the people of Scotland a choice on their future.”

Technically, Ms. May can’t call the election without backing from the opposition parties. Under Britain’s fixed-term legislation, an early election can only be called with the backing of two-thirds of members of Parliament. Ms. May will introduce a motion on Wednesday calling for a vote and Mr. Corbyn and Mr. Farron have pledged to support it.

As for the EU, officials in Brussels will be watching the campaign closely and bracing for the result. On Tuesday, EU Council President Donald Tusk likened the election call to an Alfred Hitchcock film. Playing on Mr. Hitchcock’s famous remark that a good movie should “should start with an earthquake and be followed by rising tension,” Mr. Tusk said on Twitter: “It was Hitchcock, who directed Brexit: first an earthquake and the tension rises.”

 

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