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Why did Theresa May call for an election?

In a surprise announcement, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May says she wants a general election in June. Here are four factors that explain the move
Britain Politics
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the media outside her official residence of 10 Downing Street in London, Tuesday April 18, 2017. British Prime Minister Theresa May announced she will seek early election on June 8 (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May made a surprise announcement Tuesday in London that she plans to seek approval from the House of Commons to hold a general election on June 8. To make that official, May will need a two-thirds majority vote in the House to override the U.K.’s fixed election law (which, if things were to have proceeded normally, would have put the next election in 2020). In all likelihood, May will get that majority vote in the House Wednesday to trigger an election, as so far the leaders of the two other major parties (Labour and the Liberal Democrats) have said they welcome it.

READ MORE: May calls early U.K. election

Yet, one question remains: Why now? May said many times she would not seek an early election. As recently as late March, her office repeated that claim. So, what gives?

Here are a few factors that might explain May’s decision to call for an election.


In her announcement Tuesday, May rested her entire argument for an election on this point.

“Britain is leaving the European Union and there can be no turning back. And as we look to the future, the Government has the right plan for negotiating our new relationship with Europe,” she said. “At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division. The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.”

Whether an election will solve that is, of course, up for debate. However, though the Conservative party has a majority already in the House of Commons, there is an argument to be made that it does not have a mandate on Brexit, necessarily. May became prime minister last summer thanks to a Conservative Party leadership vote following David Cameron’s resignation after the Brexit referendum in June. The Conservative party never ran an election on how they would work to remove the U.K. from the EU—just that they would trigger a referendum on doing so.

Therefore, it’s arguable that Britons ought to be given the chance to grant May and her party a mandate to go forward with their Brexit plans—or, conversely, to reject either those plans or May herself.


As it stands, the chances of voters rejecting either the Conservative party or Theresa May appear slim.

A YouGov poll last week found 44 per cent of respondents would vote Conservative in a general election, and a full 50 per cent of those polled said they thought May would make the best prime minister. Similarly, an Opinium poll released April 11 found 38 per cent of its respondents would vote Conservative, and 48 per cent would want May leading the country.

In February, following byelections, the Telegraph projected how the House of Commons would look if a general election were to have been called at that point. It speculated that the Conservatives would hold a majority of 108 seats (379 to Labour’s 182). Currently, the Conservatives hold 330 seats, and Labour holds 229.

(Toby Melville/Reuters)
Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Destroying Labour

Labour’s polling numbers are brutal, but not all that surprising, given the year the party has had. Since Brexit, Labour—currently the official opposition in the House—has failed to progress as a cohesive unit. Though the Brexit vote was expected to fracture the Conservative party internally, the power struggles at play within the government have paled in comparison to those that have played out over many months within Labour.

Brexit was not the cause of the divisions within the Labour party, but it cast them into harsh relief. The party’s official position was to support remaining in the EU—a position its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had opposed in the past as an MP and one on which he was reluctant to campaign prior to the referendum vote. In the end, the party generally failed to motivate its traditional base to support remaining in the EU, which deepened the existential rift within the party itself between its more centre-left members (and many current MPs) and a faction further to the left that has propped up Corbyn, and saw him through a leadership challenge last September.

There remains an open question as to whether anybody but that left-wing faction of the Labour party cares much for Corbyn. The same polls that projected healthy support for both the Conservative party and Theresa May this month painted an abysmal picture when it came to the Labour leader. Only 14 per cent thought Corbyn would make the best prime minister (which put him behind even “don’t know” at 36 per cent), according to YouGov’s polling. Worse, Opinium’s polling showed that a mere 45 per cent of Labour voters want Corbyn as prime minister.

As the New Statesman’s political editor put it in March, discussing the state of Labour: “The electorate can smell that something is seriously wrong and is recoiling, but those closest to the triumvirate of the leader… seem oblivious to or unconcerned by the stench of failure.”

YouGov found that only 23 per cent of respondents said they would vote Labour in a general election. An ICM-Guardian poll earlier this month found similarly only 25 per cent of respondents supported Labour.

How might that manifest itself in an election? We may have had a hint during those byelections in February that prompted the Telegraph to do its seat projection. One byelection was in Copeland, a riding in Cumbria on England’s north-western coast, and a seat that Labour had held since its creation in 1983. The Conservatives won it this year by seven points.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives to speak to the media outside her official residence of 10 Downing Street in London, Tuesday April 18, 2017. British Prime Minister Theresa May announced she will seek early election on June 8 (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May arrives to speak to the media outside her official residence of 10 Downing Street in London, Tuesday April 18, 2017. British Prime Minister Theresa May announced she will seek early election on June 8 (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Burying a Conservative scandal

Sitting quietly in the background since the previous election in the U.K. has been a brewing expenses scandal. In March, Britain’s Electoral Commission released a report saying, in rather dull language, that it found spending returns from the Conservative party during the 2015 election (and the 2014 European parliamentary elections) had not been “complete.” The party was fined £70,000 for three such instances.

However, the story of those incomplete Conservative spending returns is potentially significant. As the Guardian put it (based on reporting by Channel 4), the overspending noted by the Electoral Commission “allowed the party to send its most dedicated volunteers into key seats, in which data had identified specific voters whose turnout could swing the contest. Some of this spending was not properly declared, and some of it was entirely off the books.” The amounts involved in each instance were small, the Guardian reported, “but the impact may have been decisive.”

Channel 4’s Michael Crick (the reporter who initially launched an investigation into the expenses) pointed out Tuesday on Twitter that the early election call now puts Britain’s Crown Prosecution Services—the body that would bring charges against MPs or their agents over the spending—in a bind. “Deadlines late May, early June!” Crick tweeted Tuesday. In other words, does the CPS go ahead with its charges (if there are any to put), despite an election campaign? Or does it all just disappear into an election fog?