LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May received overwhelming support Wednesday from Parliament to hold early elections in June, as the government seeks more clout before difficult talks on Britain’s break from the European Union.
As expected, May received lawmakers’ approval for a June 8 election, three years ahead of schedule. Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly — 522 to 13 — in favor of a motion that paves the way for an election that could expand the Conservative Party’s hold on Parliament and government affairs.
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 it is weakened — after May had repeatedly promised not to hold an early vote.
“We welcome the general election,” said Labour Party leader Jeremy 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 a Daily Mail headline calling 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 barbs against opponents who she said 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 in order 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 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 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 the pro-E.U. side does well in the election, May could be forced to soften her vision of a “hard Brexit.”
She also said her decision was partly in response to political opponents who have questioned May’s tactics for the Brexit process, which should take at least two years. She disclosed that she made the decision last week during a walking holiday in Wales.
Her critics say she was driven by political opportunism because of her party’s commanding lead in the polls.
In Scotland, where voters favored 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 E.U.
“Yesterday she changed her mind, not for the good of the country, but for reasons of simple party advantage,” Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, said at a rally.
The governing Conservative Party has a narrow majority of 17 seats in the House of Commons. Some pollsters suggest that its majority could jump significantly with the upcoming election.
On Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers voted on whether to back May’s call for an early election. The Labour and Liberal Democrat parties had officially welcomed May’s announcement, and while there was resistance, she easily got the backing she needed.
May became prime minister in July after her predecessor, David Cameron, resigned following his pro-European Union side’s defeat in last year’s referendum.
Britain voted 52 to 48 to quit the bloc. But majorities in two of the U.K.’s four nations — Scotland and Northern Ireland — opted to stay.
Sturgeon, the Scottish leader, has argued that the U.K. is taking Scotland out of the E.U. against its will. Last month, the semiautonomous Scottish Parliament backed her call for a new independence referendum. But for such a referendum to be binding, she needs approval from Westminster.
May has not ruled out a fresh independence referendum but has said that “now is not the time.”
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.”