Britain had barely returned from its Easter break when the press reported that Theresa May, the prime minister, was to make a statement in Downing Street. After an hour’s frenzied speculation about what she might say, May stepped up to a podium in front of Number 10 and announced that she and her cabinet had decided there should be a general election on June 8.
And that, it seems, is that. Under the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act, at least two-thirds of the House of Commons must vote in favour of an election for one to be called – ahead of the due date which in this parliament was scheduled for 2020, the last election having taken place in 2015. But with Labour saying it will back May’s decision, the country will head to the polls in a matter of weeks.
This was a bombshell announcement delivered at remarkably short notice. Even though political commentators have been debating the advisability of calling a snap election since the Brexit referendum, the announcement caught most of them by surprise.
So what does the announcement tell us about May, her team, and the challenges they now face?
First of all, May is taking a gamble on her personal brand. Until now, she presented herself as a steady, no nonsense, get-the-job-done leader. To reinforce that image, she several times reiterated that she would not call an early election. Her sudden U-turn might seem like an opportunity for the opposition parties, but she’s probably not too vulnerable on this front.
For all that politicians and political reporters obsess over process issues and consistency, most voters don’t. May will also be protected by the vote in the Commons to come: Labour, for one, will vote in favour of an early election, so Jeremy Corbyn and his party can hardly attack her for calling it.
The U-turn factor notwithstanding, May’s argument for holding the election is reasonably logical. As she acknowledged in her announcement, the Brexit process has caused confusion, and many people will want a simple and clear way through the minefield. By painting the opposition parties as obstructionists and troublemakers that endanger the future of a post-Brexit Britain, May puts herself on the side of the people.
It all added up to a fantastic example of a leader wrongfooting both the media and the opposition, who scrambled to issue their responses.
The Conservatives are also surely keen to fight a Labour party run by the dramatically unpopular Corbyn.
May has also reportedly ruled out any TV debates along the lines of those held in 2015. That’s a blow to the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and the Lib Dems’ Tim Farron, both of whom stood to gain from sharing a stage with May. (Anyone who watched the 2015 debates will remember that Sturgeon’s debating skills are especially formidable.)
The May team won’t have the element of surprise again, and a lot now depends on whether they’re actually ready for the campaign. But the timing, tone and surprise factor of the election announcement was the work of a team that really knows what it’s doing. The fallout over the next few days will tell us a lot about the Conservatives, but even more about the other parties.
As Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and UKIP respond in full, we’ll start to see just how strong, prepared and determined they are – or aren’t.
Paula Keaveney is a member of the Liberal Democrats.