Theresa May has insisted numerous times that she would not call for an early general election. One of the main reasons she cited for this is that the instability of an election could derail the complex Brexit process.

Yet, yesterday she announced a plan to call a snap general election, explaining that this would "remove the risk of uncertainty and instability".

As a complete outsider to UK politics, I am confused. Why the dramatic change of heart?

  • 15
    I didn't follow this, but the default answer is "because she now thinks she can pull off a win". (Reality and expectations of politicians do not need to align. See Cameron)
    – Peter
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 7:13
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    As a practical matter, since the main opposition party (Labour) is also committed to Brexit (at least, by their own definition of "committed"), it was a good bet that there would now be no problem with the procedure to ignore the fixed 5-year term parliament legislation - and in fact that was passed today, with a majority of 522 to 13.
    – alephzero
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 17:06
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    Don't believe what politicians say! Her own party is the most divided over the question of the EU so having more of them in the government won't "remove the risk of uncertainty and instability" but make it worse! She thinks she can win an election now based on polls and by doing so cements her position of power for another 5 years is the short answer.
    – davidjwest
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 6:53
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    @davidjwest "Don't believe what politicians say!" That's why I asked the question in the first place ;) I wasn't convinced by the reasons outlined in May's announcement.
    – yannis
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 6:55
  • I think this was the plan all along. She has reached the limits of what she can do inside her party's last election manifesto, which is at odds with elements of her own personal policy. She has legally triggered Brexit now so that debate is over; it cannot be untriggered. She has stamped her authority on the party and seen off internal dissent by showing her efficacy; there is no threat of a leadership challenge. But now she needs fresh authority to negotiate the Brexit the way she wants it, and for imposing her own domestic agenda.
    – Calchas
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:38

3 Answers 3


There are a few reasons for Theresa May to call for a snap election.

1. Personal mandate

As you know, Theresa May wasn't elected by the people in UK; she became Prime Minister after David Cameron resigned and she won the Conservative Party's leadership election.

It's difficult to govern without a mandate. Furthermore, it would make it difficult for her to decide the course for UK's exit from the EU. Since she has chosen a "Hard Brexit", she needs support from the people as the government should represent citizens.

She also needs a mandate so that she won't be blamed in the future for negotiating such an important deal without having the popular support from the people.

2. Polling is in her favour

According to a recent opinion polling, the Conservatives are heading for a landslide victory. So, it's a good opportunity to call a general election.

A ComRes poll for the Sunday Mirror and Independent on Sunday gave the Conservative party a walloping 21% lead over the opposition Labour party, while a poll for the Times of London by British pollster YouGov put the Conservative lead over Labour at 17%.

Source: http://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/18/europe/uk-snap-election-explainer/

The Conservatives currently have only a 17-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons. If she wins more seats, it would be much easier for her to pass the necessary bills related to Brexit, such as the "Brexit bill" and the "EU divorce bill".

Most importantly, the final Brexit deal requires the Parliament to vote in order to approve it, so having a larger majority reduces the chances of the UK leaving the EU without a deal.

3. To secure a mandate for the Brexit plan

This election would allow the public to show their support for Theresa May's Brexit plan which she mentioned in an interview with The Sun:

Telling of her hopes from voters on June 8, Mrs May added: “What I hope comes out of the election is support from the public to say we agree with their plan for Brexit, so that when I go into Europe I’ve got that backing of the British people”.

Source: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/3358730/we-need-an-election-now-to-deliver-brexit-as-rebels-are-trying-to-subvert-will-of-the-people-every-step-of-the-way-theresa-may-says-in-exclusive-chat-with-the-sun/

4. To show the EU that Brexit really means Brexit

On this basis, a resounding majority for May would remove any motive for the EU negotiators to make the UK’s Brexit terms as unpalatable as possible in the belief that it would help UK voters realise the terms of Brexit are just too painful to accept.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/apr/18/mays-real-reason-for-calling-election-to-show-eu-that-brexit-really-means-brexit

This would give the EU lesser arguments to give the UK a bad deal and at the same time to give Theresa May a stronger argument since she has the popular support.

5. To keep the United Kingdom united

As it's well-known that the Scottish National Party (SNP) is trying to push for another independence referendum, it's hoped that the Conservatives would gain more Scottish seats to the House of Commons after this election which would weaken SNP's dominance.

Currently, the SNP has 56 Scottish seats to the House of Commons while the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties each has one.

Prime Minister Theresa May has also mentioned a few reasons in her early election speech:

So we need a general election and we need one now, 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.

[ ... ]

Every vote for the Conservatives will make it harder for opposition politicians who want to stop me from getting the job done.

Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the prime ministers, presidents and chancellors of the European Union.

Every vote for the Conservatives means we can stick to our plan for a stronger Britain and take the right long-term decisions for a more secure future.

(emphasis mine)

  • Re #5: the next Scottish Parliament general election is due in 2021. Could you clarify how the snap (UK) general election relates to that? Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 9:12
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    Re #1: it's been commented that May has felt restricted by feeling the need to continue some of Cameron's policies; whereas by seeking a new mandate, she can free herself from those shackles, and head off in her own direction. Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 9:14
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    Number 4 doesn't make sense. The EU will punish the UK to make sure other countries don't try to leave, not to convince UK residents that leaving the EU is a bad deal.
    – SGR
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 11:20
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    Building on #2: From what I was reading, a larger coalition will also give her more flexibility in negotiations, because she'll have more flexibility within her party.
    – Bobson
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 12:55
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    Reason #6 - because it will make a clutch of Tory MP's who were under investigation for electoral fraud very hard to prosecute. mirror.co.uk/news/politics/… - while I'm not suggesting this is a primary factor, it seems entirely plausible to part of the calculation here.
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 15:20

The most likely "deep" reason for May's change of mind is the interaction of the timetable for Brexit with the UK's recent legislation about fixed-term parliaments, according to many UK political commentators.

The two-year Brexit negotiations would end in 2019, but most likely there will be some "handover period" after that date involving some interim arrangements. That handover period would correspond with the run-up to the next scheduled general election in 2020, and could therefore become the main issue in the 2020 election.

By calling an election now, the 2020 election is deferred until 2022.

If May had simply wanted to "obliterate the Parliamentary opposition," that might have been better done earlier - for example while the opposition Labour party was still in the middle of its long-drawn-out leadership contest. But since a 2/3 parliamentary majority would have been required to bypass the 5-year parliament law, that might not have been possible before the Brexit decision had been taken.

Of course, a 21% lead in recent opinion polls may also be relevant to the decision, but the "official" statement about the opposition parties playing "political games" to try to disrupt the Brexit process seems disingenuous - though the realistic prospect of a majority of 100 or more after a snap election is clearly more appealing than the current majority of 17, especially when that includes some Conservative MPs with strong anti-Brexit view.


The most obvious reason is that current polling suggests that an election in the near future would greatly expand the Conservative majority in the Commons. Clearly there is some risk attached to this and there have been several notable upsets in the actual results of ballots compared to predictions (notably the outcome of the Brexit referendum itself). Under normal circumstances a government with a fairly small majority mid way through its term might try to struggle through, especially as the majority of 17 isn't quite as bad as it sounds considering that the main opposition party has internal problems of its own and the rest of the minority parties don't have a huge amount of common ground. For example cooperation between the Lib Dems and Labour is much less likely than it might have been a few years ago.

However the upcoming Brexit negotiations are likely to be politically quite difficult for whatever government has to carry them out. Although they have pressed the argument that the decision to leave the EU in principal has been made democratically there is no clear mandate for any sort of manifesto on what that should look like or what the UK even wants from a deal let alone what it has a realistic chance of getting.

It is not vastly unreasonable to speculate that even among people who voted for Brexit there are significant differences in opinion as to what any deal should look like. An obvious example is the tension between free trade with the EU and free movement of people (and the implications that has for immigration) as well as concerns about what will happen to regional grants which currently come from the EU.

A simple solution to this is a second referendum on the terms of any deal, however if this waits untill a deal is in place it is arguably too late to be really meaningful but if it happened earlier the Government runs the risk of being unable to deliver it in practice. Equally as David Cameron discovered, any referendum is potentially risky for a government and any specific deal runs the risk of splitting the pro-brexit vote and the 48% who voted against it represents a sizeable constituency even if there is no significant shift in opinion. Not to mention the risk that the actual realities of the negotiating process could potential put people off the idea as many of the key claims main during the referendum campaign are mutually exclusive.

By calling a general election the government can claim a mandate for whatever they decide to do without having to be too specific about what that might end up being.

Similarly a 'hard' Brexit is arguably the easiest outcome to achieve and regardless of whether it is a good idea overall it is relatively easy to make political capital from as is can be sold as taking a strong and decisive position. A stance which is often easier to sell to voters than a more nuanced position involving lots of delicate compromises.

The idea of 'crushing' the opposition is debatable. There is a reasonable argument that an election now., whatever the result, is better for the Labour Party in the long run than the current situation as it stands a good chance of decisively vindicating one side or the other.

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