Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announces the UK general election for 4 July

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called a snap general election for July 4 on Wednesday, handing the fate of his struggling Conservative Party to a restless British public that appears eager for change after 14 years of Conservative rule.

Sunak's surprise announcement, from a rain-splattered lectern in front of 10 Downing Street, was the starting signal for six weeks of campaigning that will deliver a verdict on a party that has led Britain since Barack Obama was American president. But the Conservatives have discarded four prime ministers in eight years, reeling in the serial chaos of Brexit, the coronavirus pandemic and the cost of living crisis.

With the opposition Labor Party leading by double digits in most polls over the past 18 months, a Conservative defeat has come to take on an air of inevitability. Despite all this, Sunak reckons Britain has had enough good news in recent days – including glimpses of new economic growth and the lowest inflation rate in three years – for his party to be able to stay in power.

“Now is the time for Britain to choose its future,” Sunak said as heavy rain soaked his jacket. The choice for voters, he said, was to “build on the future that has been made or risk going back to square one”.

Political analysts, opposition leaders and members of Sunak's party agree that the electoral mountain he will have to climb is Himalayan. Burdened by a weak economy, a disastrous foray into cascading fiscal policies and subsequent scandals, the Conservatives have seemed exhausted and adrift, divided by internal feuds and fatalistic about their future. They face a threat on the right from the anti-immigrant Reform UK party.

“The Conservatives are facing something of an extinction-level event,” said Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent who has advised Boris Johnson and other party leaders. “It looks like they will suffer an even bigger defeat than Tony Blair suffered in 1997.”

Other political analysts were more cautious: some pointed out that in 1992 the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Major managed to overcome an electoral deficit to win a narrow victory and remain in power.

However, since the party won the 2019 election by a landslide under the slogan “Get Brexit done”, the Conservatives have lost support among young, traditional Conservative voters in the south and south-west of England and above all, working class voters in industrial countries. Midlands and the North of England, whose support in 2019 was crucial to then Prime Minister Boris Johnson's historic victory.

Many are disillusioned by the scandals of Johnson's tenure, including Downing Street social gatherings that breached Covid lockdown rules, and even more so by the fiasco of his successor, Liz Truss, who was toppled after just 44 days, a following proposed tax cuts that rattled financial markets, torpedoed the pound and fractured the party's reputation for economic expertise.

Although Sunak, 44, stabilized markets and led a more stable government than his predecessors, critics say he never developed a convincing strategy to boost the country's growth. He nor he kept two other promises: to reduce waiting times in Britain's National Health Service and to stop the flow of small boats carrying asylum seekers across the Channel.

Many voters in “red wall” districts – so called because of Labour's campaign color – appear ready to return to their party roots. Under the competent, if uncharismatic, leadership of Keir Starmer, Labor has shaken off the shadow of its left-wing predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.

Starmer, a former government prosecutor, has methodically overhauled Labour, purging Corbyn's allies, eradicating a legacy of antisemitism in the party's ranks and moving its economic policies further to the centre.

“We have changed the Labor Party, bringing it back to serving working people once again,” Starmer said in his post-Sunak speech. “Together we can stop the chaos, turn the page, start rebuilding Britain and change our country.”

Under British law, Sunak was obliged to hold an election by January 2025. Political analysts had expected him to wait until the autumn to give the economic recovery more time. But in the wake of Wednesday's announcement that inflation had fallen to an annual rate of 2.3% – just above the Bank of England's 2% target – he may have been betting that the news was as good as it gets. could have gotten.

Sunak may also think the government could fly a first flight carrying asylum seekers to Rwanda before the vote. This would allow him to claim progress on another of his priorities.

Rwanda's policy of deporting asylum seekers to the African nation without first hearing their cases has been condemned by human rights activists, courts and opposition leaders – and sparked a series of legal challenges. But Sunak has made it a central part of his agenda, because it is popular among the Conservative Party's political base.

In his remarks, Sunak sought to portray Labor as lacking a programme. “I don't know what they offer – and in truth, I don't think you do either,” he said. But his message was occasionally drowned out by the sound of Labour's 1997 election anthem, “Things Can Only Get Better”, blaring from a protester's loudspeaker in a nearby street.

For Sunak, the son of parents of Indian origin who emigrated from British colonial East Africa sixty years ago, the decision to go to voters earlier than expected is not entirely unusual. In July 2022, he broke with Johnson by resigning as Chancellor of the Exchequer, triggering a loss of government support that ultimately forced Johnson from power.

Sunak then launched a spirited bid for the party leadership, losing to Truss in a vote of around 170,000 party members. After Ms Truss' economic policies backfired and she was forced to resign, Mr Sunak re-emerged to win the next contest, this time held only among Conservative Party Members of Parliament.

Sunak inherited a daunting set of problems: double-digit inflation, a stagnant economy and rising interest rates, which have hit people in the form of higher rates on home mortgages. Waiting times at the National Health Service, exhausted after years of fiscal austerity, have stretched into months.

Sunak has achieved some early successes, including a deal with the European Union that largely defused a trade impasse over Northern Ireland. He surpassed his goal of halving the inflation rate, which was 11.1% when he took office in October 2022. And there are signs that the economy is starting to turn around.

Earlier this year Britain emerged unexpectedly strong from a mild recession, with the economy growing by 0.6%. The International Monetary Fund has revised up its growth forecast for the country this year, praising the government and central bank's action.

But the good news may be fleeting. Inflation is expected to rise again in the second half of this year, and April's number was not as low as economists expected. That has led investors to reconsider the timing of when the Bank of England might cut rates, all but ruling out that they will be lowered next month. Expectations that rates will fall in August have also fallen.

At the same time, the possibility of further tax cuts before the election has narrowed. Data released on Wednesday shows that public debt is rising. And the IMF warned the government against tax cuts, arguing that Britain had huge demands for more public spending to improve its public services, including the NHS, and at the same time needed to stabilize its public debt .

Ultimately, analysts say, it was these underlying realities that drove Sunak's decision to now turn to voters, and it is the economy, more than anything else, that will decide his and his party's fate.

“You can talk about Partygate and Truss,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, referring to Johnson's lockdown-breaking social gatherings. “But ultimately, the factors that will decide this election will be anemic growth and a state that is collapsing before our eyes.”

Ashley Nelson contributed to the reporting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *