April 18, 2017 / 2:09 PM / in 7 months

Theresa May cashes in at peak political valuation

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Theresa May is cashing in at the peak of her political valuation. Calling a general election for June 8 is the prime minister’s best chance of securing a strong personal mandate to lead Britain.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the media outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, Britain April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

There are three strong reasons for holding an early ballot. Though May’s Conservative Party has a majority of just 17 seats in the House of Commons, it enjoys a big lead in the opinion polls. The latest survey by YouGov showed the Tories a staggering 21 percentage points ahead of Labour, the main opposition party. A by-election victory in February was the first to be won by an incumbent British government in 35 years.

A general election would also be a personal endorsement for May, who became prime minister in the turmoil after the Brexit referendum in June 2016 but has yet to face voters as leader of her party. A victory would offer some protection if Britain’s economy suffers as the reality of Brexit kicks in. The memory of Gordon Brown, who decided against calling an election when he took over as prime minister in 2007 and was booted out of office three years later, is an effective deterrent against procrastination.

Europe’s electoral calendar also works in May’s favour. Forthcoming elections in France and Germany meant negotiations over Brexit were unlikely to start in earnest until those countries installed new governments. And if Britain fails to secure a deal with the EU by the March 2019 deadline and crashes out of the single market, at least May won’t have to face the electorate again until 2022.

True, the strategy has risks. The campaign will force May to clearly state her priorities for Brexit – something she has tried to avoid so far. That could exacerbate latent tensions in her own party, while pushing pro-European voters to support the rival Liberal Democrats. Then again, if May can secure a sufficiently large majority, she could rule for a decade.

On Tuesday, May said she had “recently and reluctantly” dropped her opposition to an early election, arguing that it was the only way to secure “certainty and stability”. A more compelling explanation is that she has belatedly realised her political stock will never again be this high.

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