Theresa May appealed to voters for a mandate to see off opposition to her strategy for Brexit as she made the shock announcement of a snap election in seven weeks’ time.
The Prime Minister said political divisions over the UK’s path as it leaves the European Union meant that “we need a general election and we need one now”.
She claimed threats from Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the House of Lords to derail Brexit and block the work of government meant she had to abandon a promise not to go to the polls.
The government’s working majority of just 17 has been seen as too narrow to avoid pressure from pro-EU opposition parties and backbenchers on one side, and from hard-core Tory Brexiteers on the other who want to see the UK leave the EU without a formal Brexit deal.
Bookies gave Mrs May 1/12 odds of returning with a improved majority, making delivery of her Brexit plan to leave European single market and negotiate a trade deal with the EU easier.
Mrs May insisted she had made her decision “only recently, and reluctantly”.
The Prime Minister said: “Last summer, after the country voted to leave the European Union, Britain needed certainty, stability and strong leadership, and since I became Prime Minister the government has delivered precisely that.
“Despite predictions of immediate financial and economic danger, since the referendum we have seen consumer confidence remain high, record numbers of jobs, and economic growth that has exceeded all expectations.
“We have also delivered on the mandate that we were handed by the referendum result. Britain is leaving the European Union and there can be no turning back.
“At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division. The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.
“Labour has threatened to vote against the final agreement we reach with the European Union. The Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill. The SNP say they will vote against the legislation that formally repeals Britain’s membership of the European Union. And unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.”
Mrs May claimed that without a clear electoral mandate, her hand in Brexit negotiations would be “weakened” and “political game-playing” would continue.
“Since I became Prime Minister I have said that there should be no election until 2020, but now I have concluded that the only way to guarantee certainty and stability for the years ahead is to hold this election and seek your support for the decisions I must take.”
She said the election would be a choice between “strong and stable” leadership under the Conservatives, or a “weak and unstable” coalition led by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and propped up by the Lib Dems or the SNP.
Mrs May spoke with US president Donald Trump and European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council president Donald Tusk, and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, last night about her intention to hold a snap election. She also called Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, with last-ditch talks to avoid a return to direct rule in Northern Ireland ongoing.
Last night Mrs May set out her reasons for calling an election to Tory MPs in an address to the backbench 1922 Committee at Westminster, getting a rousing reception.
Downing Street said the work of preparing for Brexit talks would continue despite the election campaign, with civil servants and ministers staying in their roles until polling day.