LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May stirred jeers and cheers in Parliament on Wednesday after her surprise call for early elections as the government seeks more clout before difficult talks on Britain’s break from the European Union.
May was expected to easily receive lawmakers’ approval for a June 8 election, three years ahead of schedule. But the session in the House of Commons was also a forum to spar over the British leader’s stunning decision Tuesday.
Her backers lauded the move as a courageous tactic aimed at giving Britain the best possible leverage in its high-wire negotiations over the E.U. divorce, known as Brexit. Her critics painted the election call as a blatant attempt to steamroll the opposition while they are weakened — after May had repeatedly promised not to hold an early vote.
“We welcome the general election,” said the Labour Party’s Jermey Corbyn, triggering guffaws and laughter. “But this is a prime minister who promised there wouldn’t be one. A prime minister who cannot be trusted.”
The Scottish National Party’s Angus Robertson called on May to condemn the Daily Mail headline calling political opponents “saboteurs.”
May — who had earlier told the BBC that she opposed the headline — said it was right to have debate and scrutiny in Parliament.
But she added some barbs against opponents she claimed were undermining British interests ahead of the E.U. talks.
“It’s clear from statements that have been made by the Scottish nationalists and others, that they do want to use this House to try to frustrate that process,” May said.
Before heading to Parliament, May told the BBC that she reversed her pledge to “strengthen our hand in negotiation with the European Union.”
“I genuinely came to this decision reluctantly, having looked at the circumstances, and having looked ahead at the process of negotiation,” she said on BBC’S Radio 4.
But the election also threatens to revive the bitterness and public feuds from last year’s referendum over E.U. membership.
Had she not called an early election, she argued, the “crucial” Brexit negotiations would have occurred in the years before the scheduled 2020 election and potentially put Britain at a disadvantage with E.U. negotiators — who have signaled that they are unwilling to offer Britain generous concessions on the break over issues including trade and immigration.
But if anti-Brexit voices do well in the polls, May could be forced to soften her demands that Europe provide favorable conditions for the split.
She also said that the decision — which she said she made last week during a walking holiday in Wales — was partly in response to political opponents who have questioned May’s tactics for the Brexit process, which should take at least two years.
Her critics say she was driven by political opportunism because of her party’s commanding lead in the polls.
In Scotland, where voters leaned in favor of staying in the European Union, May’s decision could help push plans to hold another referendum on Scottish independence in a bid to remain in the European Union.
“Yesterday she changed her mind, not for the good of the country, but for reasons of simple party advantage,” Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, told supporters at a rally.
The governing Conservative Party currently has a narrow majority of just 17. Some pollsters suggest that it could jump significantly with the upcoming election.
On Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers will vote on whether to back May’s call for an early election. Opposition parties have officially welcomed May’s announcement, and while there will be some resistance, she is expected to get the backing she needs.
May’s call for an early election gives Britain’s weak and fractious opposition just seven weeks to prepare for a vote that had not been due for three more years.
Brexit brought May to power; her predecessor, David Cameron, resigned after the humbling defeat of his pro-European Union side in last June’s referendum on whether to leave the trading bloc.
Although Britain as a whole voted 52 to 48 percent in favor of leaving the European Union, majorities in both Scotland and Northern Ireland favored staying.
Sturgeon, the Scottish leader, she said last month that she wants a referendum on independence — a rerun of a September 2014 vote, in which a majority of Scottish voters opted to stay in the United Kingdom — between the autumn of 2018 and the spring of 2019.
May has repeatedly said that “now is not the time” for a Scottish vote. But she has not threatened to veto another referendum.
Sturgeon told supporters on Wednesday: “Make no mistake, if the [Scottish National Party] wins this election in Scotland, and the Tories don’t, then Theresa May’s attempt to block our mandate, to give the people of Scotland a choice, over their own future when the time is right, will crumble to dust.”
In a further political shake-up, the Conservative politician George Osborne announced he was stepping down as a lawmaker. The news broke in the London’s Evening Standard newspaper, where Osborne is about to take on a new job as the paper’s editor.
Osborne was part of the former prime minister David Cameron’s senior leadership team, and prior to the Brexit vote, was viewed as Cameron’s heir.