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May goes to the country

What happened

Theresa May stunned even her own MPs this week by calling for a snap election on 8 June. Speaking at Downing Street after a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, she said: “We need a general election and we need one now.” The Prime Minister reversed her earlier decision not to hold a vote before 2020 because, she said, Labour and the Liberal Democrats had opposed her plans for Brexit. “The country is coming together, but Westminster is not,” she declared. “Division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit.” The decision was kept so secret that most Cabinet ministers were not told of the plan until Tuesday morning.

The PM put a motion for an early election before the Commons on Wednesday. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, a two-thirds majority is required to bring an election forward from its set date. However, the leaders of Labour and the Liberal Democrats stated that they would welcome a chance to fight an election. “The election gives the British people the chance to change direction,” said Jeremy Corbyn. The vote passed by 522 to 13, with nine Labour MPs voting against, and the SNP abstaining.

What the editorials said

As U-turns go, it was “an absolute screecher”, said The Guardian. Again and again, Theresa May had repeated the mantra that there should be no election until 2020. Yet now it is going to happen after all, “solely because Mrs May thinks this is a good time to crush Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party”. This is “a premature election which the country does not need, the people do not want, and Mrs May does not require in order to do her job”.

Nonsense, said the Daily Mail. This was a “brave” and necessary decision. May will be judged above all on how she handles the Brexit talks, said The Daily Telegraph. For that she needs “political stability”, not opposition parties blocking and undermining her. The country needs strong leadership, and the polls suggest that she has the chance “to become as dominant a figure on the political stage as Margaret Thatcher was 30 years ago”. The PM’s claim that the opposition is thwarting Brexit is “disingenuous”, said the FT. In fact, resistance has been “lame”. The real threat is her own Eurosceptic MPs. A strong mandate will allow her to take a “pragmatic” softer line on Brexit, and to pursue her own domestic agenda – without being held to ransom by Tory rebels. “These are good reasons to go to the country.”

What the commentators said

Any early election is a gamble for a sitting government, said Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. But as gambles go, May’s is “about the surest bet any politician could ever place”. Most polls show the Tories with a lead of around 20% over Labour (see Politics). Polls are often unreliable, and her lead could narrow over a 50-day campaign. But even if it shrinks to 10%, she will still greatly increase her majority of 17. The real gamble would have been to “sit it out until 2020”. If she had, the election would have come the year after the completion of the Brexit deal, and after another long period of austerity – leaving her at the mercy of events.

Still, her chief reason for calling the election is simple, said Daniel Finkelstein in The Times: Labour. “The main opposition party is going to fight this election with a leader that even many of his own MPs believe should not be prime minister.” And on the EU, the election’s central issue, it has no credible policy at all. Do they think Britain should be in the single market? That it should allow free movement of labour? I genuinely don’t know. In Downing Street, the Liberal Democrats are taken more seriously than Labour, said Rachel Sylvester in the same paper. The Lib Dems’ support for Europe has given them a “distinctive identity”. In Remain-supporting areas, such as university towns and London, they pose a real challenge to the Tories. After their “virtual annihilation” in 2015, “the only way is up”.

What next?

A number of MPs have revealed that they will not fight the next election, says BBC News online. Former Labour home secretary Alan Johnson will step down, while George Osborne said that he was leaving the Commons – “for now”.

Parliament will break up on 3 May, to allow just over a month of “full-pelt” campaigning. Theresa May has said that she will not take part in any TV debates ahead of the election. She was criticised for the decision, but said that she preferred “to get out and about and meet voters”.

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