Poltical turmoil as UK prime minister announces snap general election

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By James Boggs Foreign Correspondent In a remarkable move last Tuesday, April 18, British PM Theresa May announced a “snap general election” scheduled for June 8, less than two months away. The political bombshell was announced without prior warning by May after she convened a special cabinet meeting to discuss the move with her close advisors. This move comes as an especially big surprise because May has consistently denied the possibility of such an election since taking office after the Brexit referendum. On June 30, 2016, a week after a successful Leave campaign, May said that, “There should be no general election before 2020, a position she reinforced even a month ago, when an official spokesman for 10 Downing Street said on March 20 that, “There is not going to be a general electionuntil 2020.” The British parliament may choose to dissolve itself at any time and call a new general election. Until the passage of the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the British parliament had no set term limit, and elections were called as needed or politically expedient. This vote, which successfully passed with opposition support, is the first since the passage of the act, which requires a two-thirds majority to call such an election. Despite this novelty, the snap election is fulfilling a fairly traditional political role, namely reaffirming that the majority party, currently the Conservatives, have strong popular support. In this case, May called the election to provide her and her party with a powerful mandate to pursue a so-called “hard Brexit” strategy, which involves pulling Britain completely out of the EU and then pursuing various trade relationships as an independent entity. At the moment, the Conservative party has a small majority of 17 seats in the House of Commons, small enough that Conservative MPs who oppose a hard Brexit could revolt and prevent May and her administration from accomplishing all of their goals. Moreover, it is seen as a sort of second referendum, meant to show that there is wide-spread support for a hard Brexit approach. The move to call the election came almost directly after an opinion poll of the British populace gave her a 21 percent lead over the opposing Labour party, the second largest party in Britain. According to some analysts, she could win a majority as big as 150 seats, cementing her mandate and public support for a hard Brexit. Although senior Conservative leaders denied that the snap election was called because of the recent poll, both critics of the move and its supports widely believe that the poll was a major contributing factor. Rather surprisingly, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn supported the move, and encouraged both his own party and the Lib-Dems to accept the proposal. Despite the poll, both he and Lib-Dem leader Tim Farron expressed hopeful views – Corbyn said his party would campaign with a message of “social justice for all” and Farron noted that the election offers Britons an opportunity to prevent “a disastrous hard Brexit.” The move is indeed a calculated gamble for May, who stands to lose immensely if public opinion is swayed in the next few weeks. Some attempts to use a snap election to provide legitimacy for the government have backfired severely in the past, such as the then PM Edward Heath’s attempt to face down labor unions, a mistake which lost him and his party the majority. The vote comes at a pivotal moment for not only Britain but Europe, and the results will definitively shape the course of Britain’s relationship with the EU for the foreseeable future. Should May and the Conservatives take the day, a hard Brexit strategy will be inevitable, whereas a surprise Labour victory would lead to a softer Brexit, or possibly a hold on Brexit negotiations for the moment. This is the debate underlying the election: how should Britain leave the EU. Ardent proponents of Brexit want a complete withdrawal from the EU, including leave its free-trade zone, closing British borders, and nullifying any EU-based treaties. Instead, they want Britain to negotiate trade deals completely independently. Others want a soft Brexit, which is essentially as little a Brexit as possible. Now that the referendum has gone through, the British government is obligated to leave the EU. However, politicians who favored Remain would work to keep things as close to the present situation as possible. The next 50-odd days will determine which of these approaches are used, based on what will likely be a frenetic campaign from both sides.

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