Rishi Sunak Requests UK General Election

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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday set July 4 as the date for a national election that will determine who governs the United Kingdom. His divided and demoralized Conservative Party looks likely to lose power after 14 years.

“Now is the moment for Britain to choose its future,” Sunak said in an announcement that took many by surprise, as most expected a fall election. He chose a day of positive economic news, hoping to remind wavering voters of his relative success in office.

Sunak’s announcement outside the prime minister’s residence was almost drowned out by protesters blasting “Things Can Only Get Better,” a rival Labour campaign song from the Tony Blair era.

Sunak’s center-right party has seen its support dwindle steadily, struggling with a series of crises, including an economic slump, ethics scandals, and a revolving door of leaders in the past two years.

The center-left Labour Party is strongly favored to defeat Sunak’s party. Labour leader Keir Starmer said his party would bring stability.

“Together we can stop the chaos, we can turn the page, we can start to rebuild Britain and change our country,” Starmer said.

Rishi Sunak Requests UK General Election
Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media outside 10 Downing Street in London on Wednesday, May 22, 2024, as he announces that he is to call a General Election for July 4. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Bookies and pollsters rank Sunak as a long shot to stay in power. But he said he would “fight for every vote.”

Sunak emphasized his credentials as the leader who saved millions of jobs with support payments during the COVID-19 pandemic and got the economy under control. He said the election would be about “how and who you trust to turn that foundation into a secure future.”

The election will take place against a backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis and deep divisions over how to deal with migrants and asylum-seekers making risky English Channel crossings from Europe.

The announcement coincided with figures showing inflation in the U.K. had fallen sharply to 2.3%, its lowest level in nearly three years, driven by significant declines in domestic bills.

The drop in April showed the greatest progress to date on five pledges Sunak made in January 2023, including halving inflation, which had climbed above 11% at the end of 2022. Sunak hailed the new figure as evidence his plan was working.

Britain’s Labour Party leader Keir Starmer arrives to speak in Westminster, London, on Wednesday, May 22, 2024, after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak set the date of July 4 for a national election in the U.K. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)

“Today marks a major moment for the economy, with inflation back to normal,” Sunak said Wednesday ahead of the election announcement. “Brighter days are ahead, but only if we stick to the plan to improve economic security and opportunity for everyone.”

Voters across the U.K. will choose all 650 members of the House of Commons for a term of up to five years. The party that commands a majority in the Commons, either alone or in coalition, will form the next government, and its leader will be the prime minister.

Starmer, a former chief prosecutor for England and Wales, is the current favorite. The party’s momentum has built since it dealt the Conservatives heavy losses in local elections earlier this month. The Conservatives have also lost a series of special elections for seats in Parliament this year, and two of its lawmakers recently defected to Labour.

Following his party’s successes in the local elections, Starmer, 61, last week announced a platform focused on economic stability after years of soaring inflation as he tries to win over disillusioned voters.

He also pledged to improve border security, recruit more teachers and police, and reduce lengthy waiting lists at hospitals and doctors’ clinics across the country.

Elections in the U.K. must be held no more than five years apart, but the prime minister can choose the timing within that period. Sunak, 44, had until December to call an election. The last one was in December 2019.

Many political analysts had anticipated a fall election might give Conservatives a better chance of maintaining power, as economic conditions may improve further, voters could feel the effect of recent tax cuts, interest rates may come down, and a controversial plan to deport some asylum-seekers to Rwanda — a key policy for Sunak — could take flight.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said some voters might give Sunak credit for gambling on an early election because it makes him look strong and bold rather than weak and indecisive. However, he noted that voters care about the fundamentals.

“And those fundamentals don’t look particularly good for the prime minister,” Bale said. “The economy, whatever he says, is still fairly weak. Growth is fairly anemic. Inflation has come down, but it’s still there … [and] public services are in trouble.”

Sunak had been noncommittal about the election date, repeatedly saying — as late as lunchtime on Wednesday — that he expected it would be in the second half of the year.

Although inflation has fallen, Sunak’s other promises — to grow the economy, reduce debt, cut waiting lists to see a doctor at the state-run National Health Service, and stop the influx of migrants crossing the English Channel — have seen less success.

Sunak has struggled after entering office following the disastrous tenure of Liz Truss, who lasted only 49 days after her economic policies rocked financial markets. Truss had been chosen by party members after Boris Johnson was ousted over a series of ethics scandals.

Associated Press
Associated Press
The Associated Press is an American not-for-profit news agency headquartered in New York City.

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