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Struggling to explain UK politics? International affairs expert available to help

April 18, 2017

Why did British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday call an early general election, and what power gives her that ability?

Yannis Stivachtis, director of the International Studies Program in the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences’ Department of Political Science, explains:

What is a “snap election” and what is its purpose?

A “snap election” is an early election. Under the British Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, general elections should take place every five years on the first Thursday in May. Since the last election was held on May 7, 2015, the next one was not due until 2020. 

May, however, announced Tuesday that an early general election will be held on June 8, 2017. Such an election can only take place if the Prime Minister’s motion is supported by two-thirds of all the seats in the House of Commons. This means that for the motion to pass, 434 out of 650 members of Parliament must back an early election.

On Wednesday, May will propose such a motion before the British Parliament. The members of Parliament are expected to approve it overwhelmingly, because the main opposition parties have already declared their support for it.

What might this vote do to the negotiations on Britain’s departure from the European Union?

Britain voted in July 2016 in a divisive and hotly contested referendum to leave the European Union after 44 years of membership. May officially began the Brexit process on March 29, 2017 by triggering Article 50, the legal mechanism needed to begin the divorce process and officially start talks with the EU. The negotiations are expected to be tough and will likely take place over two years, though the more complex aspects of Britain’s future relationship with the EU, such as trade, could take even longer. 

May has struggled with not only the opposition, but with members within her own Conservative Party, who have been at loggerheads over what kind of so-called “Brexit” the country should have. 

May laid out her vision for Brexit in January and more formally since. But even that basic framework has caused divisions in her party and has involved several rounds of deliberations before a coherent plan took shape. As a result, May has argued that a new mandate would strengthen her hand in Brexit talks. As she put it, a general election would end the attempts of opposition parties and members of the House of Lords to thwart her Brexit plans.

What does Prime Minister May stand to gain from holding the election?

May commands a slim majority as the Conservative Party currently holds 330 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. She is expected to win an increased number as opinion polls show support for the opposition Labor Party at record low levels. 

However, this is also a risky move as a fractious election campaign would reopen wounds barely healed after last year’s EU referendum and give voice to those who oppose her strategy of pursuing a clean break from Europe.  

Schedule an interview

To secure a print or broadcast interview with Yannis Stivachtis, contact Jordan Fifer in the Virginia Tech Media Relations office at jordanfifer@vt.edu or 540-231-6997.

Read Stivachtis’ bio

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