Westminster works into a frenzy at May’s surprise announcement

PM’s election U-turn causes discomfort as MPs scramble to prepare for campaign

British prime minister Theresa May outside 10 Downing Street on Tuesday. There were doubts that she was set to call an election, not least because she has repeatedly ruled it out. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

British prime minister Theresa May outside 10 Downing Street on Tuesday. There were doubts that she was set to call an election, not least because she has repeatedly ruled it out. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

 

The anticipation in advance of her statement on Tuesday morning may have proven too much even for Theresa May herself, who approached the lectern outside 10 Downing Street 10 minutes ahead of schedule. The news earlier in the morning that she was making an announcement took Westminster by surprise, jolting MPs, staff and reporters out of their post-holiday torpor.

Prime ministers only make statements in front of No 10 to make big announcements, such as their resignation, a military intervention or calling a general election. Downing Street refused to offer any hint of what May would say, so reporters hurried over from Westminster in a frenzy of speculation.

The idea of a military intervention was soon dismissed, on the basis that May had shown no appetite for further engagement in Syria and North Korea was too far away to concern Britain’s depleted armed forces. And why would May resign? True, there had been some press speculation about her health (she has Type 1 diabetes) but she showed no signs of feebleness as she took a walking holiday in Wales last week.

That left just one option, an early general election. There were doubts about this too, not least because the prime minister has repeatedly ruled it out, and her spokesman stated last month that it was “not going to happen”. When the lectern was placed outside No 10, those doubts disappeared, because it did not bear the prime minister’s insignia – a clear sign that the announcement was political rather than official.

“I have just chaired a meeting of the cabinet, where we agreed that the government should call a general election, to be held on June 8th. I want to explain the reasons for that decision, what will happen next and the choice facing the British people when you come to vote in this election,” May said.

Broken promise

Seldom relaxed as she faces the cameras, the prime minister looked a little more uncomfortable than usual, perhaps because this flagrantly broken promise sits uneasily with her image as a person of her word who doggedly sees things through. She justified her U-turn by accusing Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and the House of Lords of seeking to undermine her negotiations with the EU.

The charge rings hollow in the wake of the lamb-like capitulation by Labour and the Lords in last month’s votes on triggering article 50, which passed without amendment. The more likely obstructionists sit on May’s own backbenches, among the 80 or so hardline Brexiteers she has worked hard to keep on her side ahead of the negotiations.

Back at Westminster, as diaries were cleared and holidays cancelled, MPs pondered their future, as did the staff whose jobs depend on them. For some, the early election means they will dodge a bullet, as a planned boundary revision that would have eliminated 50 out of the 650 constituencies will now be postponed for at least five years.

Some MPs hastened to reassure their electors that they would contest the election, among them the SNP’s Mhairi Black, the youngest person elected to parliament for 350 years, who told a newspaper last month that Westminster was a waste of time, adding that she “hates the place”. Others, especially on the Labour benches, face the voters with trepidation and the prospect of five more years in opposition with deepening gloom.

Labour’s Tom Blenkinsop, who won Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland by just over 2000 votes in 2015, was the first to declare that he would not be standing. He waited all of three minutes after May finished speaking.