May buys Brexit time with early UK election

As British Prime Minister Theresa May secures a clear mandate from MPs to hold an early election, many are asking why she is holding one at all. Samira Shackle reports from London.

As the dust settles from Theresa May's shock decision to call a general election on June 8, many people are trying to second-guess her motives.

Read: British Prime Minister Theresa May calls for snap elections

The next election was expected in 2020, but the Fixed Term Parliaments Act allows for one to be held earlier if two-thirds of MPs back the move. 

Since becoming Prime Minister last July, May has repeatedly denied that she would hold an early election. On Wednesday morning, she told the BBC that "no politician wants to hold an election for the sake of it."

Politics | 29.03.2017

Across the UK, many are asking one question: why hold one at all?

"There are three explanations," says Matthew Cole, lecturer in history at Birmingham University. "The first is the one May's given us - that she needs to tackle 'obstructionism' in parliament, though this isn't plausible as she hasn't been defeated in parliament. The second is simple electoral cynicism. The third is that she wants to buy more time after the 2019 deadline for Article 50. She doesn't want to be bound to being held accountable in a general election in 2020 with negotiations most likely still incomplete. Whichever explanation it is, it's a shrewd and forward-looking decision."

The Article 50 deadline in 2019 is extremely tight for complex negotiations, with deliberation time already eaten into by German and French elections before a British election was added to the mix. "It's an open secret that 2019 is merely going to be a staging post in any departure, which became somewhat more open yesterday," Cole told DW.

Silencing the opposition?

Although opinion polls have been notoriously unreliable in recent years (predicting a win for the Remain camp in last year's EU referendum), the current evidence available suggests that May will increase her majority substantially.

"This election announcement makes clear that the prime minister feels the opportunity to strengthen not just her party's, but also her own mandate as they seek to push forward with Brexit is simply too lucrative to pass by," says Sophie Gaston, head of international projects at the left-leaning think tank Demos. "The damage the Labour Party is almost certain to endure at the ballot box under [party leader Jeremy] Corbyn will further diminish the opposition forces to a 'hard Brexit.' But it also threatens to fundamentally erode the political counter-balance that had kept British politics in the center ground for so many years before the referendum."

Read: Post-Brexit, the hard work begins now for the UK

Britain's tabloid media, which has strongly supported Brexit over the course of many years, was jubilant on Wednesday. The Daily Mail's front page headline called for May to "Crush the Saboteurs" while the Sun called for "Blue Murder" (referring to the Conservative's color).

"The problem this raises is that it's an attempt to shut down a debate which nobody has managed to shut down for 40 years," says Cole. "The European debate doesn't go away, like water it always finds a way. It's understandable May wishes to have as strong a hand and as obvious a level of support from her own country as possible. The fact is there comes a point at which the desire to silence the opposition does more damage than the opposition would have done."

Unknown unknowns

The clock is ticking on several fronts

Of course, as with any public vote, May is taking a gamble. "The election carries bigger risks than it might seem. Polls in Britain are rarely very accurate and it is hard to work out how support will translate to seats in Britain's 'first-past-the-post' voting system," says Tom Follett, senior policy and projects manager at the independent think-tank Respublica. "Looking back at the elections of the past few years, voters are often not doing what is expected of them."

Among the many unpredictable factors in this election is the role of the smaller parties. The Liberal Democrats, who currently have only nine MPs, are seeking to drastically increase their share of the vote by fighting on a strongly anti-Brexit platform. "The Liberal Democrats are the uncertain factor, and could take anywhere from a few more seats, to enough to remove the government's majority," Follett told DW.

In a TV vox pop that went viral yesterday, a woman called 'Brenda from Bristol' complained that there was "too much politics." It is a distinct possibility that voters, suffering from election fatigue after last year's referendum and the 2015 general election, will not turn out in high numbers.

Read: British public shocked as Theresa May calls snap election

"As ever in this strange new political landscape, there are no known known's - but you'd be a brave pundit to place a bet on any other outcome than a powerful victory for the prime minister on June 8," said Gaston.

Who's who in the UK snap election

May calls voters to the polls

On April 18, British Prime Minister Theresa May called for an early general election, bumping it up from 2020. British voters are set to cast their ballots for the House of Commons' 650 seats on June 8. Brexit will likely dominate the campaign agenda, with many perceiving the election as a vote on May's Brexit leadership.

Who's who in the UK snap election

Reason to be happy

Though May had previously denied she would call for an early ballot, she argued snap elections were now necessary to counter the opposition's "political game-playing" on the UK's departure from the European Union (EU). For May, who took office after David Cameron resigned in the wake of the Brexit referendum, the vote marks her first attempt to secure a popular mandate.

Who's who in the UK snap election

Conservatives stand to profit

With the opposition at its weakest position in years, the early election will likely prove a major boon to the Tories, allowing them to comfortably expand their current 17-seat majority in the House of Commons. Overall, the Conservatives have backed May's leadership as she steers the UK towards a hard Brexit, which includes removing the country from the European single market.

Who's who in the UK snap election

Jeremy Corbyn on board

Embattled Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announced his support of May's call for snap elections. He will attempt to position his party as an "effective alternative" to the Tories. Corbyn, a traditional labourist, will campaign on reversing government austerity, nationalizing railways, and investing in wages, all while steering clear of Brexit so as to not alienate the party's pro-leavers.

Who's who in the UK snap election

Battles within the Labour party

Analysts predict few election gains for Labour, however, as Corbyn's Old Labour policies and refusal to bend to backbench opposition have split the party. Some Labour MPs challenged his support of snap election, and Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop said he would not stand for re-election due to "irreconcilable differences" with Corbyn.

Who's who in the UK snap election

Farron seeks strong stance

Tim Farron, current leader of the Liberal Democrats said that, "only the Liberal Democrats can prevent a Conservative majority." After the party's coalition with the Conservatives under Cameron, the Lib Dems were smashed in 2015 national elections, receiving only nine seats. For Farron, the snap election will be a chance for him to significantly build up his party's representation in parliament.

Who's who in the UK snap election

The "real opposition"

The pro-EU and economically liberal party also used May's announcement to call for a second Brexit referendum. In terms of the June elections, the Lib Dems could benefit from disaffected pro-EU Labour voters and those who seek a "soft Brexit" that would keep the UK in the European single market. According to the party, 1,000 people registered as Lib Dems just after May's announcement.

Who's who in the UK snap election

Trouble brewing in the north

Like the Lib Dems' Farron, first minister of the Scottish government and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon clearly positioned herself against May, describing the Prime Minister's move as a "huge political miscalculation." May and Sturgeon have been a loggerheads over whether or not a second Scottish referendum can go forward before Brexit comes into effect.

Who's who in the UK snap election

Support for independence?

The SNP already holds 54 of Scotland's allotted 59 MP seats, leaving little room for gain. However, the party is also unlikely to lose seats as their support has stayed steady. A majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU, meaning that Sturgeon could frame the election as both a call to Downing Street to consider a "soft Brexit" option and to consult the devolved nations in exit negotiations.

Who's who in the UK snap election

UKIP slips into the shadows

Despite being a major player in the campaign to take the UK out of the EU, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) currently has just one seat in parliament. However, the Euroskeptic party still has a support base, and leader Paul Nuttall will seek to paint May as a political opportunist. Yet this will not likely translate into seats as many former UKIP voters have joined May's "hard Brexit" bandwagon.

Who's who in the UK snap election

Bumper year of elections

Other parties currently holding Commons' seats include the Greens (one), Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (eight) and Sinn Fein (four), as well as Wales' Plaid Cymru (three). The June 8 election date places the UK's national election between that of France (April/May) and Germany (September), meaning parliamentary chambers on both sides of the channel may be in for a shake up.