Vote favors early election for Brits

Backers call May’s push brave; critics say she broke promise

Posted: April 20, 2017 at 3:51 a.m.
Updated: April 20, 2017 at 3:51 a.m.

British Prime Minister Theresa May in March signs the official letter to European Council President Donald Tusk invoking the formal start of European Union exit negotiations.

LONDON -- British voters will be heading to polling stations for the third time since 2015, after lawmakers overwhelmingly backed Prime Minister Theresa May's call for a snap election on June 8.

Lawmakers voted Wednesday by a resounding 522-13 to back May's call for an election, easily surpassing the two-thirds majority in the 650-seat House of Commons needed to trigger an early vote.

But the session in the House of Commons was also a forum to spar over the British leader's decision.

Her backers lauded the move as a courageous tactic aimed at giving Britain the best possible leverage in its negotiations over the European Union divorce. Her critics painted the election call as a blatant attempt to steamroll the opposition while it is weakened -- after May had repeatedly promised not to hold an early vote.

"We welcome the general election," said Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, triggering guffaws and laughter. "But this is a prime minister who promised there wouldn't be one. A prime minister who cannot be trusted."

The Scottish National Party's Angus Robertson called on May to condemn a Daily Mail headline calling political opponents "saboteurs."

May, who had earlier told the BBC that she opposed the headline, said it was right to have debate and scrutiny in Parliament.

Before heading to Parliament, May told the BBC that she reconsidered her pledge in order to "strengthen our hand in negotiation with the European Union."

May wasted no time in campaigning. She went from the vote in Parliament to kick off her campaign with a speech to supporters in northwestern England.

She said the Conservatives would provide "strong and stable leadership" for the EU exit and beyond, and promised to wage "a positive and optimistic campaign."

Earlier, May said holding an election in June, rather than as scheduled in 2020, would mean the "most sensitive" part of the two-year EU exit negotiations would come during the run-up to an election.

"That would be in nobody's interest," May said.

Now that lawmakers have approved the election, Parliament will be dissolved at midnight May 2, 25 working days before election day.

The opposition Labor Party and Liberal Democrats welcomed the chance to put their policies to voters, although the Scottish National Party called the election a cynical political ploy. Its lawmakers abstained during Wednesday's vote.

Corbyn said the election "gives the British people the chance to vote for a Labor government that will put the interests of the majority first."

Despite Corbyn's bravado, his party is divided under his left-wing leadership and is expected to fare badly. Polls give the Conservatives a double-digit lead over Labor.

May's Conservatives currently hold 330 House of Commons seats and Labor 229.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said that, for May, calling the election is "the political equivalent of taking candy from a baby."

"She expects a coronation and not a contest," Farron said, urging voters to back his strongly pro-EU party to stop a Conservative landslide. The Liberal Democrats currently have just nine seats in Parliament.

In Scotland, where voters last year favored staying in the EU, May's decision could help push plans to hold another referendum on Scottish independence in a bid to remain in the EU.

"Yesterday she changed her mind, not for the good of the country, but for reasons of simple party advantage," Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, told supporters at a rally.

Sturgeon called May's election plan a "huge political miscalculation" and said she'd fight to "make Scotland's voice heard." Her deputy party leader, Robertson, said the Scottish government already has a mandate for another referendum, and the June election will be about whether the country is willing to give the Tories a "blank check" for a "hard Brexit."

Sturgeon said last month that she wants a referendum on independence -- a rerun of a September 2014 vote, in which a majority of Scottish voters opted to stay in the United Kingdom -- between the autumn of 2018 and the spring of 2019.

May has repeatedly said that "now is not the time" for a Scottish vote. But she has not threatened to veto another referendum.

Sturgeon told supporters Wednesday: "Make no mistake, if the [Scottish National Party] wins this election in Scotland, and the Tories don't, then Theresa May's attempt to block our mandate, to give the people of Scotland a choice, over their own future when the time is right, will crumble to dust."

May dismissed criticism of her decision to call voters back to polling booths for the third time in just over 24 months. A national election in May 2015 was followed by the June 2016 referendum on EU membership.

"Brexit isn't just about the letter that says we want to leave. It's about ... getting the right deal from Europe," May said, reiterating that it strengthens negotiations.

EU officials said Britain's surprise election will not interrupt the bloc's preparations for exit talks -- though it will slightly delay the start of negotiations.

Leaders of EU states are due to adopt negotiating guidelines at an April 29 summit, and the bloc will prepare detailed plans for the talks with Britain by late May.

It had been hoped that talks could start by the end of that month, but EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said Wednesday that "the real political negotiations" with Britain would not start till after the June 8 election.

Information for this article was contributed by Jill Lawless, Danica Kirka and Raf Casert of The Associated Press; by Karla Adam of The Washington Post; and by Rodney Jefferson of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 04/20/2017