Theresa May has stunned Westminster by demanding a snap general election on 8 June that she hopes will turn her party’s clear lead in the opinion polls into a healthy parliamentary majority and secure her Conservative vision for Brexit.
The prime minister made an unscheduled statement on Tuesday morning from behind a lectern outside 10 Downing Street, in which she recanted her repeated promise not to go to the polls before 2020.
She accused opposition parties of trying to jeopardise her government’s preparations for exiting the EU as she called for what would be a third nationwide poll in three years – while the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, responded by saying he would welcome the opportunity to fight an election opposing Tory austerity.
May said: “We need a general election and we need one now because we have at this moment a one-off chance to get this done while the European Union agrees its negotiating position and before the detailed talks begin.”
Supporters of the prime minister said she would use the election to crush dissent over Brexit, with one projection by the election expert Michael Thrasher suggesting she could secure a majority of 140 on the basis of current polls. His estimate suggests the number of Tory MPs could rise from 331 to 395, with Labour potentially slumping from 229 to 164.
Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, May cannot call an election directly but will lay down a motion in the House of Commons requiring two-thirds of MPs to back it. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party all promised not to stand in her way, allowing for the Commons to be dissolved on 3 May.
MPs will vote on whether to dissolve parliament after a 90-minute debate on Wednesday, after prime minister’s questions.
In a sign of the tone she is likely to adopt during the seven-week campaign, May quickly focused on her opponents in her address to the nation, saying: “The country is coming together but Westminster is not.”
She added: “In recent weeks Labour have threatened to vote against the final agreement we reach with the European Union, the Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill, the SNP say they will vote against the legislation that formally repeals Britain’s membership of the European Union, and unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.”
Corbyn made clear that Labour would back the government in calling for dissolution despite anger from some of his party’s MPs who are worried about losing their seats in the election.
The Labour leader said: “I welcome the prime minister’s decision to give the British people the chance to vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first. Labour will be offering the country an effective alternative to a government that has failed to rebuild the economy, delivered falling living standards and damaging cuts to our schools and NHS.”
One shadow cabinet member and ally of the Labour leader argued that Corbyn could turn around public expectations over the next eight weeks.
Opposition politicians pointed out that May had repeatedly said she would not call a general election. The prime minister said she had come to the decision reluctantly and recently, but felt it was necessary to secure stability, at a time when her party is riding high in the polls. Sources suggested that advisers believed the argument would resonate with the public.
May used a television interview with ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston, to suggest she had made her decision during last week’s break from parliament.
“Before Easter I spent a few days walking in Wales with my husband, I thought about this long and hard and came to the decision that to provide for that stability and certainty, this was the way to do it,” she said.
But the Guardian understands that May had been considering the question for a few weeks and had all but made up her mind before using the holiday to mull it over. The idea had been a tightly guarded secret, only discussed among a very small group of her closest advisers, with senior colleagues in the party only finding out on Tuesday.
Sources admitted that a key hope was to boost the Tories’ slim working majority of 17 in order to help pass Brexit-linked legislation such as the “great repeal bill” as well as plans for a future immigration system and domestic policies such as May’s flagship grammar schools reform. They said the prime minister was determined to avoid “endless back and forth” on important issues.
Key cabinet members including the home secretary, Amber Rudd, the Brexit secretary, David Davis, and the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, were informed of the decision in individual meetings on Tuesday morning. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, also knew in advance.
Recent polls show a healthy lead for the Conservatives. A Guardian/ICM survey on Tuesday placed the party 21 points ahead of Labour despite a policy blitz by Corbyn’s party. It had the Tories on 46%, compared with 25% for Labour and 11% for the Lib Dems. It also suggested there was support for a snap election, with 55% of respondents backing the idea compared with 15% opposing it.
Labour sources pointed out that polls had not been consistent, with one recently placing the Tory lead at just nine points.
The Lib Dems made clear that they planned to turn the general election into a referendum on a hard Brexit, with the leader, Tim Farron, telling voters: “This election is your chance to change the direction of our country.”
Writing in the Guardian, he said: “There are large numbers of Conservative seats where the Lib Dems are the challengers. Seats up and down the country where the Tories are looking vulnerable, where constituents will question this brutal, dumb hard Brexit. The only way to stop Theresa May winning a majority, the only way to stop a hard Brexit, is by the Lib Dems winning in those seats.”
Among well known Lib Dems standing for re-election will be the former cabinet ministers Vince Cable and Ed Davey.
The SNP was less supportive of the notion of an early election, but said it would not stand in the way. The party’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, claimed that Scotland was now a two horse race between the SNP and the Conservatives, adding that he was hopeful of gaining on the 56 of 59 Scottish seats won in 2015.
Senior Conservatives suggested that May would focus the election on leadership, as well as on completing Brexit, and key domestic policies such as education. The party is also likely to repeat a 2015 tactic: to contrast the likelihood of a Conservative majority to a Corbyn-led coalition that included the SNP.
Downing Street ruled out May appearing in any head-to-head TV debates, despite demands from Corbyn. “I say to Theresa May, who said this election was about leadership: come on and show some,” he said. “Let’s have the debates. It’s what democracy needs and what the British people deserve.”
But broadcasters are likely to avoid heated clashes with Downing Street, as seen during the 2015 election, which ended with David Cameron taking part in special election programmes instead of head to heads.
The election caused nerves among Labour MPs, with some bemoaning the possible loss of colleagues and two of the party’s politicians, Tom Blenkinsop and Alan Johnson, saying they would not contest their seats.
Tony Blair has called on voters to consider maintaining politicians of any party determined to maintain an open mind on Brexit. “The damage to the country will be huge if we end up with an unrestrained ‘Brexit at any cost’ majority,” he wrote, claiming May was trying to take advantage of Labour’s difficulties.
“The state of the Labour leadership offers such an obvious target that it would be an extraordinary act of political self-denial to refuse to put the opposition to the test,” said Blair, arguing that the prime minister also wanted a mandate for Brexit before the talks ran into inevitable difficulties.
Conservatives were largely supportive of the decision with Steve Baker, a key backbencher who chairs the European research group, claiming that Labour and the Lib Dems were trying to scupper Brexit.
“I am delighted that the prime minister has decided to ask the parliament to go to the country in pursuit of a mandate for the plans she has set out for leaving the European Union. This should be great news for a strong and stable government, a strong negotiating hand and a good deal,” he said.
“Labour are going to decide if they want a real Brexit or a fake one. A fake Brexit is staying in the customs unions or EEA, unable to chart our own course on trade policy and services regulation.”
Others claimed that May had been driven by controversy facing her party over election expenses in 2015, with the CPS still considering charges against dozens of MPs.
But some Tories were more nervous, with one MP first elected in 2015 with a relatively small majority over the Liberal Democrats saying he was preparing for a tough battle.
“I’m in a better position than some colleagues – there’s a few who are more panicky than me,” he said. “But it’s still tricky for me. I’d have preferred to get more things done before I stood for election again, and there’s only so much you can do in less than two years. Five years gives you a chance to make your mark.”
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|Candidate||First ballot: 5 July 2016|
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