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British Prime Minister Theresa May Calls For Early Election


British Prime Minister Theresa May made a surprise announcement today calling for early elections in the U.K. this June. She said it was a necessary move as the country heads into negotiations around Brexit, Britain's exit from the European Union. Here she is outside No. 10 Downing St.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: At this moment of enormous national significance, there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division. The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.

SIEGEL: Westminster, meaning Parliament. For more on May's announcement and how Parliament might respond, we're joined now by George Parker, political editor of the Financial Times. Welcome back to the program.


SIEGEL: National elections in the U.K. were not expected to take place until the year 2020. Theresa May has herself said multiple times she wouldn't call elections before then. What changed her mind?

PARKER: Well, it all comes down to Brexit, I think. And I think she'd come to the conclusion sort of reluctantly I think over a number of months that really she needed to take back control of Brexit, coupled with which of course there was the tempting matter of the opinion polls which suggest if she does have an early election, that she'd crush the Labour opposition. So I think in the end, it just proved too much of an opportunity to resist.

SIEGEL: Now, it used to be that the prime minister could call an early election, a snap election, one very quickly. But thanks to a fairly new law, she needs to get approval from the House of Commons. Does she have the votes she needs for this general election to go forward?

PARKER: Well, we'll find out on Wednesday when Parliament votes on whether there should be early election. And the answer to the question appears to be yes, that the opposition parties will vote for that early election.

SIEGEL: The original Brexit vote was fairly close. Fifty-two percent voted to the EU. Forty-eight percent, though, voted to remain. Is it possible that this election will become sort of second referendum on Britain leaving the EU?

PARKER: It's difficult for the Labour Party to turn it into a second referendum because the Labour Party's support was split down the middle. But there's a third element in this election - the third party, the Liberal Democrats. They are pro-European, and they will definitely try to turn this election into a proxy for the referendum. And I think it's quite likely the Liberal Democrats will win a number of seats from Theresa May particularly in the south of England. Theresa May's calculation is that she'll win a load more seats off Labour in the north to compensate.

SIEGEL: Theresa May became prime minister after the Brexit referendum when David Cameron, who had led the party in the previous general election, stepped down, he having supported remaining within the EU. If her current majority - if the current Conservative majority isn't comfortable enough, how many is comfortable enough?

PARKER: Well, the current majority's only 17, which is pretty thin and not only makes life complicated for - in terms of Brexit, but it makes it complicated in terms of a whole load of other domestic reforms that Theresa May would like to carry out. So she wants her own mandates.

The opinion polls suggest that this election could deal Theresa May with a majority going up from 17 at the moment to maybe over a hundred. I think that's probably looking towards the best-case scenario for the Conservatives. But nevertheless, that kind of majority, her own mandate, will be a prize that will be very valuable to Theresa May.

SIEGEL: Over the past couple of months since we spoke last, say, I mean has the idea of leaving the European Union become more of a consensus position among Brits? That is, would it still poll 52 percent, do you think, in a referendum, or is it now something that people have accepted as the future and more would support it?

PARKER: The country is still very much divided on the question, but there's no sign that people who actually supported Brexit in 2016 have changed their minds - rather the opposite.

SIEGEL: George Parker, political editor for the Financial Times in London, thanks for talking with us.

PARKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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