LONDON â€” British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday defended her decision to call an early election for June, saying it would strengthen the government’s hand in negotiations to leave the European Union.
May dismissed criticism of her move to send voters back to polling booths for the third time in two years, after a May 2015 national election and a June 2016 referendum on EU membership,
She said that “Brexit isn’t just about the letter that says we want to leave. It’s about … getting the right deal from Europe.”
Britain’s next national election is currently scheduled for 2020, a year after the scheduled completion of two years of EU exit talks.
May told The Sun newspaper that if Britain were still negotiating with the bloc in the run-up to a national election, “the Europeans might have seen that as a time of weakness when they could push us.”
An early ballot, which May wants to hold June 8, will give the prime minister â€” or her replacement â€” more time to implement Brexit before another election.
May also told the BBC that her political opponents were intent on “frustrating the Brexit process” â€” even after Parliament authorized divorce talks with the EU.
EU officials say Britain’s surprise election will not interrupt the bloc’s preparations for Brexit talks â€” though they will slightly delay the start of negotiations. Leaders of EU states are due to adopt negotiating guidelines at an April 29 summit, and the bloc will prepare detailed plans for the talks with Britain by late May.
It had been hoped talks could start by the end of that month, but EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said Wednesday that “the real political negotiations” with Britain would not start till after the June 8 election.
May’s Conservatives currently hold 330 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. Opinion polls give them a big lead over the Labour opposition, and May is gambling that an election will deliver her a personal mandate from voters and produce a bigger Conservative majority in Parliament.
The House of Commons will vote later Wednesday on whether to support May’s call for a snap election.
Under British electoral law, May needs the backing of two-thirds of lawmakers. She will likely get it, since Labour has welcomed the early election.
If the election is approved Wednesday, Parliament will be dissolved on May 2, sparking almost six weeks of campaigning.
Unofficial electioneering kicked off in the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session in the House of Commons, as May traded barbs with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Against a backdrop of raucous cheers and jeers, May called Corbyn “not fit to lead” and said his left-wing economic policies “would bankrupt this country.”
Corbyn said years of Conservative austerity had led to falling living standards and called May “a prime minister who can’t be trusted.”
May ruled out participating in televised debates with other leaders. TV debates don’t have a long history in British politics, but were a feature of the last two elections, in 2010 and 2015.
“We won’t be doing television debates,” May said, adding that politicians should spend election campaigns “out and about” meeting voters.
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said that broadcasters should hold debates anyway, with an empty chair in May’s place.
“The prime minister’s attempt to dodge scrutiny shows how she holds the public in contempt,” he said.
The first paragraph of this story has been corrected to show that the election is in June, not next month.
Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this story.
Jill Lawless And Danica Kirka, The Associated Press