LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May stunned her nation and its European partners Tuesday with a call for an early national election on June 8, seeking to cement her political backing as Britain moves ahead with difficult negotiations on its break from the European Union.
The surprise announcement — made outside her office at 10 Downing Street — comes amid internal political strains over Britain’s exit, known as Brexit, and fresh moves by Scotland to potentially carve its own independent path to remain in the European Union.
On the wider European stage, the election cannot undo Britain’s break from the E.U. But it will help set the tone for Britain’s contentious talks to split from the bloc, whose 27 remaining leaders have taken a hard line against any major concessions on key issues such as trade.
If May emerges strengthened from the election — as opinion polls currently suggest — she will have greater clout to muzzle domestic dissent as she buckles down for talks. But if anti-Brexit voices do well in the polls, May could be forced to soften her demands from Europe.
No matter how the vote swings, the six-week election campaign is certain to reopen some of the bitterness of last year’s referendum, as voters are once again asked to consider what kind of country they envision after its E.U. break and in generations to come.
“I have concluded the only way to guarantee certainty and stability for the years ahead is to hold this election and seek your support for the decisions I have to make,” said May, who last month submitted Britain’s formal request to begin E.U. exit negotiations.
From her first day in office, May’s tenure has been shaped by the fallout from Brexit. She became prime minister in July, shortly after the referendum that set in motion Britain’s E.U. split and prompted the resignation of her predecessor, David Cameron.
Part of the election call by May is to seek her own political mandate and shrug off an image as Cameron’s replacement after he bet wrong on the Brexit referendum.
May has consolidated power within the Conservative Party. But the lack of her own popular mandate has threatened to become a liability as Britain begins to reckon with the inevitable trade-offs that come with the tricky Brexit talks.
In the election announcement, May argued that her political opponents — ranging from the independence-minded Scots to pro-E.U. factions in Parliament — are undermining Britain’s negotiating position with the European Union. At the same time, some hard-liners in her own Conservative Party are baying for a so-called “dirty Brexit” in which Britain could walk away from the negotiating table without any deals with the European Union.
“The country is coming together, but Westminster is not,” she said, referring to Parliament.
It is not clear, however, that the nation is coming together on Brexit — the wounds are still festering, and the election threatens to reopen them.
But May is sensing political opportunity.
Her Conservative Party has a narrow majority, and the opposition Labour Party is struggling in the polls. If she can strengthen her party’s majority, she will have a freer hand to face down both pro-E.U. opponents and anti-Europe firebrands in her own party.
Still, May is taking something of a calculated political gamble with elections set for just two weeks before the anniversary of the Brexit referendum.
Polls show that the Conservatives have a strong lead of more than 20 points over the Labour Party. But the announcement still caught some off guard because Downing Street had repeatedly denied that May would seek an early election. The next one was scheduled for 2020.
In explaining her previous rejection of an early election, May had said that the country needed to focus on negotiating the terms of Brexit with its soon-to-be-former European partners, not domestic politics.
But the temptation to call a new vote was strong, and allies had been pushing for her to break her vow, thinking that the weakness of the rival parties made the gamble worth taking.
The Labour Party has been at war with itself since the election of the far-left Jeremy Corbyn as leader in September 2015. A recent poll showed that, in a head-to-head matchup between May and Corbyn, not even a majority of Labour voters would want Corbyn as their prime minister.
Corbyn, however, welcomed the decision as a chance to “give the British people the chance to vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first.”
Other parties are similarly weakened. The far-right U.K. Independence Party has lost its charismatic leader, Nigel Farage, and its central message — that Britain needs to get out of the E.U. — has been co-opted by May. The centrist Liberal Democrats were all but wiped out in the 2015 election, though they will hope to rally the Brexit referendum’s “remain” voters around their unapologetically pro-European stance.
May planned to seek Parliament’s backing on Wednesday for the June 8 election.
“We need a general election, and we need one now,” May said, “because we have at this moment a one-off chance to get this done while the European Union agrees its negotiating position and before the detailed talks begin.”
She said that she “recently and reluctantly” decided to call an early election, acknowledging that she had repeatedly said there should be no general election until 2020.
But she said it was the only way to guarantee stability and to stop the “game-playing” in Westminster. She cited several examples of what she called “division” in Parliament, including the Labour Party, which she noted has threatened to vote against the final deal negotiated with the European Union.
Tim Farron, leader of the pro-European Liberal Democrat Party, said the election call offered an opportunity to urge May to take a more conciliatory line in the E.U. talks.
Some critics worry that Britain could lose important trade status and other links to Europe by pushing for what May called a full break from the E.U. There are also concerns over the estimated 3 million E.U. citizens working and living Britain, and more than 1 million Britons across Europe. May said she would seek to preserve their rights, but some E.U. officials want to take a hard line with Britain in the talks.
“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,” Farron said in a statement.
The E.U. bureaucracy, however, has shown little sympathy for giving Britain an easy landing from Brexit — still smarting from Britain’s vote and worried that generous concessions in the talks could encourage other E.U. breakaway bids around Europe.
European Council President Donald Tusk, a powerful voice in the Brexit talks, summed up the surprise that many in Europe felt at May’s announcement. “It was Hitchcock who directed Brexit: first an earthquake and the tension rises,” Tusk wrote on Twitter.
Although Britain as a whole voted 52 to 48 percent in favor of leaving the European Union, majorities in both Scotland and Northern Ireland favored staying.
Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has charged that Scotland’s voters are being taken out of the bloc against their will. And she said last week 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 sharply criticized that call. She said over the weekend that “now is not the time” for a Scottish vote. But she has not threatened to veto another referendum.
Moments after the election call, Sturgeon described it as an attempt by May to move the Conservative Party to the right and “force through a hard Brexit and impose deeper cuts.”
“Let’s stand up for Scotland,” Sturgeon wrote.
Witte reported from Paris and Murphy from Washington. Michael Birnbaum in Brussels contributed to this report.