Theresa May has said she wants to hold a snap general election on 8 June, despite repeatedly claiming that she was against the idea of an early vote.
In a surprise statement outside Downing Street on Tuesday morning, the prime minister claimed that opposition parties were jeopardising her government’s preparations for Brexit.
“We need a general election and we need one now,” she said. “I have only recently and reluctantly come to this conclusion but now I have concluded it is the only way to guarantee certainty for the years ahead.”
May claimed the decision she would put to voters in the election, the announcement of which was a tightly guarded secret known only by her closest aides, would be all about “leadership”.
The prime minister may have been swayed by recent polls that placed the Conservatives 21 points ahead of Labour despite a policy blitz by Jeremy Corbyn’s party. She will hope to boost a slim working majority of 17 in order to help pass both domestic and Brexit-linked legislation.
In her statement, May said her government was trying to deliver on last year’s referendum result by making sure Britain regained control and struck new trade deals.
“After the country voted to leave the EU, Britain needed certainty, stability and strong leadership. Since I became prime minister the government has delivered precisely that,” she said, but claimed that other political parties had opposed her efforts.
“The country is coming together but Westminster is not. Labour have threatened to vote against the final agreement we reach. The Lib Dems have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill. Unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.”
Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, May cannot call an election directly, but she said she would lay down a motion in the House of Commons. This will require two-thirds of MPs to back it.
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party, said he welcomed the decision, suggesting his MPs would back the Commons motion.
“I welcome the prime minister’s decision to give the British people the chance to vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first. Labour will be offering the country an effective alternative to a government that has failed to rebuild the economy, delivered falling living standards and damaging cuts to our schools and NHS.
“In the last couple of weeks, Labour has set out policies that offer a clear and credible choice for the country. We look forward to showing how Labour will stand up for the people of Britain.”
Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said that the country was more divided than it ever had been during his lifetime. “That represents a complete failure by Theresa May to bring the country together behind a bold and confident future for Britain outside the EU,” he said.
“Every step of the way Labour has sought to put the national interest first and to build a national consensus around our future relationship with the EU – not as members, but as partners.
“That is why Labour did not frustrate the article 50 process in parliament. It is why Labour has set six tests for the final Brexit deal that would deliver the best possible deal for everyone in Britain, whether they voted remain or leave.
“This general election is a result of the prime minister’s failure to build a national consensus. It is also an opportunity for Labour to set out an inclusive, progressive and ambitious future for Britain.”
One of Corbyn’s backbench Labour critics, Tom Blenkinsop, who represents Middlesbrough south and east Cleveland, said he would not be standing for re-election.
The Lib Dems will hope to turn the election into a second referendum on the type of Brexit being pursued by the government, but Labour’s more nuanced position on leaving the EU will make it difficult for them to follow suit.
The Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, said: “This election is your chance to change the direction of our country. If you want to avoid a disastrous hard Brexit, if you want to keep Britain in the single market, if you want a Britain that is open, tolerant and united, this is your chance. Only the Liberal Democrats can prevent a Conservative majority.
A senior Lib Dem source said the party had been preparing for a snap general election since before the referendum, with 300 candidates selected and many in place for over a year, particularly in the south-west. Battle buses have also already been reserved. Farron is this week visiting Cornwall, a key battleground for the party, and is expected to make a speech about the election later on Tuesday.
Catherine West, the Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green and shadow Foreign Office minister, said: “I welcome the opportunity to highlight the gross failings of the Conservative government since 2015 and their Lib Dem partners in their first term.
“The country has been badly let down by the ruthless and ideological decisions made by the government across the NHS, social care, education and the economy.”
The MP said that she voted not to trigger article 50 but wanted Labour to hold the government to account on Brexit through the campaign to ensure environmental protection, economic security and workers’ rights.