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Is U.K.’s May taking a risk by calling for snap elections?

April 18, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
In a surprise announcement, British Prime Minister Theresa May called for an early election instead of waiting until 2020. In asking to move up the vote, May aims to strengthen her hand in negotiating Britain's exit from the European Union. Jeffrey Brown talks to Bloomberg’s Stephanie Baker about what led to Tuesday’s announcement and what May is hoping snap elections will bring.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we reported earlier, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced today she would ask for elections to be held this June, instead of in 2020.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: The prime minister’s request for snap elections was made with an eye towards shoring up her negotiating position, as the United Kingdom heads into tough talks over the terms of its exit from the European Union. After repeatedly saying she would not call for early elections, it was a move that took many by surprise.

From London, we’re joined by Stephanie Baker, a senior writer at Bloomberg.

Stephanie, first with that surprise, how big was it, or even shock for many there, and how was it taken?

STEPHANIE BAKER, Bloomberg: It was a big shock, and it was — a lot of people were surprised it hadn’t leaked out beforehand.

As you noted in your report, she, Theresa May, the prime minister, has ruled out an early election repeatedly over the past few months. And people took her at her word. So even members of her own party were taken aback by the decision.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how fractured is the political debate there? Was there a sense that she did this because she realized she needed a strong mandate in order to shore up her support over Brexit?

STEPHANIE BAKER: Yes.

Her Conservative Party has a slim 17-seat majority in Parliament, and you know, I think she is taking a calculated bet here. She’s taken a look at the polls, which give her Conservative Party a 20-point lead, and she thinks she could increase her majority in Parliament by picking up disaffected voters from the opposition Labor Party, particularly those who supported Brexit in the north, to increase her majority, so that when she goes to Brussels to negotiate the U.K.’s exit from the E.U., she can come back with a deal, and not be attacked for any kind of compromises or, you know, negotiating conclusions by the hard anti-European wing of her own party.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how big a personal risk is she taking? I saw that opposition figures were already painting her as a kind of opportunist trying to take advantage of things here.

STEPHANIE BAKER: Well, yes, I mean, I think she runs a personal risk of undermining her own credibility, since she did say so many times that she wouldn’t hold an early election, that the country didn’t need another election, that it would undermine stability.

She does look like another politician who has gone back on her word, and I think that will play out during the campaign over the next seven weeks.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, one of the big questions, of course, is to what extent this reopens the whole question of Brexit. How much will it be the subject of debate in this election?

STEPHANIE BAKER: I think that’s what a lot of people are talking about now.

Traditionally, the U.K. has been dominated by the two main political parties, the Conservatives and the left-leaning Labor Party. The Labor Party is in a current state of disarray. It’s led by a weak leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is regarded as very un-prime ministerial.

There is a third party called the Liberal Democrats who were part of a governing coalition between 2010 and 2015. They have positioned themselves as the party of the remain vote, that is, the 48 percent of British voters who backed staying in the E.U., and they are trying to turn this election into a kind of quasi-rerun of the referendum.

Whether or not they will be able to do that, how many seats they will be able to pick by running that strategy is unclear. But, certainly, in areas like London and the South of England, which voted overwhelmingly for remain, they’re likely to pick up quite a number of seats. So it’s hard to see how the balance will change.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just briefly, in 30 seconds or so, Stephanie, Americans, of course, are used to endless, years-long elections. This is June 8, so it’s very quick.

STEPHANIE BAKER: It is. It’s seven weeks of campaigning. Parties are going to have to be writing their election manifestos, getting fund-raising in place.

It will be incredibly quick. It is not unexpected. There were many people amongst all of the different parties who thought that she would call it. The timing, of course, caught many people by surprise.

JEFFREY BROWN: Stephanie Baker of Bloomberg in London, thank you very much.

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