UK: Rain-Soaked Sunak Calls July 4 Election Amid Labour’s Dismal Polls

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It was a distinctly British scene: damp, poorly organized, and half-hearted. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took advantage of a brief pause in the rain to step out from No. 10 and announce a general election on July 4.

As he began speaking, the rain resumed with vigor, drenching his suit. Then some Labour activists began blaring “Things Can Only Get Better” by D:Ream, the theme song from Tony Blair’s victorious 1997 campaign.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media outside 10 Downing Street in London on Wednesday, May 22, 2024, as heavy rain falls. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

“Who do you trust?” the bedraggled PM asked, looking sincere as raindrops settled on his immaculate hair. “Thi-i-ings can only get beddah!” boomed the loudspeakers.

Ever since Britons began watching The West Wing 25 years ago, they’ve perceived American politicians as not only slicker but somehow more elevated. Wednesday’s weather, mirroring our national mood, summed it up perfectly. After 14 years, people blame every blemish in their lives on the Conservatives. Yet, enthusiasm for the alternative is lacking.

On the fourth of July, we won’t be torn. We’ll be worn — pessimistic, irritable, and resigned. Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s uninspiring leader, will almost certainly receive a large majority. Yet, on some level, we already know we’ll regret it immediately. Ah, well. Things can only get wetter.

It’s hard not to feel for Rishi Sunak. He’s a clever, charming man with good intentions. But he took over just as the public gave up on his party.

When Boris Johnson was ousted in 2022, the Conservatives were 7 points behind in the polls, not bad for a governing party two years into a parliament. Now that deficit has grown to 20. Voters dislike having new prime ministers handed to them by parliamentary cliques. By the time Sunak took over, this had happened twice in three months, all without a general election. People are eager to vent their frustration, and now they have their opportunity.

Heavy rain falls on the jacket of Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as he speaks to the media outside 10 Downing Street in London Wednesday, May 22, 2024, he announced that he has called a General Election for July 4. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Voters have also repressed the memory of the lockdowns they demanded in 2020 and 2021. Instead of seeing the subsequent tax and price rises as the consequence of paying people to stay home, they blame Tory incompetence. They don’t expect things to improve under Starmer, but they still want a scapegoat. Ironically, Sunak was more anti-lockdown than 90% of the country, but in a neat symbol of the entire election, no one cares.

With an irony that will puzzle the New York Times, just as the European Union shifts to parties of the authoritarian Right, Brexit Britain will be almost alone in electing a traditional Left party. While European countries consider sending illegal immigrants to safe third countries in Africa, Britain’s incoming Labour government will scrap the first such scheme. Funny how things work out.

Why now? The election could legally have been held as late as January 2025, and there were reasons to wait. Post-lockdown inflation has subsided, allowing for possible tax cuts before year-end. Tories often fare better in winter (possibly because being cold or having a cold makes people more worried about crime and immigration, and thus more right-wing). Anything could have happened.

I think the explanation lies in The West Wing, specifically the episode where an adviser reminds President Bartlett of a line from the 1968 movie The Lion in Winter (though the movie is not named). As the princes wait to be executed, Richard, played by Anthony Hopkins, stands up straight. “My, you chivalric fool,” his cynical brother says, “as if the way one fell down mattered.”

“When the fall is all there is,” Richard replies, “it matters.”

From the moment he became prime minister, Sunak has been overshadowed by events: party feuds, the lockdown hangover, the spike in energy prices. By going early, he’s finally taken the initiative. He seems determined that if he’s going down, he’ll do so on his own terms, a patriot trying to serve his country to the end. When the fall is all there is, it matters.

Dan Hannan
Dan Hannan
Author & columnist. Dan serves on the UK Board of Trade and is a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party responsible for its international relations. He teaches at the University of Buckingham and the University of Francisco Marroquín. He sat as a Conservative MEP for 21 years, and was a founder of Vote Leave.

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