Sunak Gambles on July 4 Election as Tories Struggle in Polls

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called a UK general election for July 4, a major gamble on an earlier-than-expected vote with his Conservative Party trailing far behind Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour Party in opinion polls.

Bloomberg
First Published22 May 2024
Sunak Gambles on July 4 Election as Tories Struggle in Polls
Sunak Gambles on July 4 Election as Tories Struggle in Polls

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called a UK general election for July 4, a major gamble on an earlier-than-expected vote with his Conservative Party trailing far behind Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour Party in opinion polls.

“I cannot and will not claim that we have got everything right — no government should,” Sunak said in a broadcast statement during a downpour outside 10 Downing Street. “Now is the moment for Britain to choose its future.”

Sunak had been widely expected to wait until the autumn — the deadline was January — to allow more time for a cost-of-living crisis to recede before Britons cast their ballots. Labour has held a poll lead of about 20 points for months, meaning few expect the Tories to extend their 14 years in power. A YouGov survey on Wednesday showed 71% of voters have a negative view of Sunak.

Speculation about election timing has dominated Westminster in recent weeks. Sunak may see advantage in a summer vote because he can point to recent positive economic data — such as Wednesday’s decline in inflation to 2.3% — plus his plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda, with the government promising the first flight in July. Tory strategists see the economy and their tough stance on migration as favorable battle lines against Labour.

A drenched Sunak used his statement to recall his record as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Covid-19 pandemic. The huge fiscal stimulus he rolled out arguably played a role in fueling the post-pandemic inflation that roiled his government, but it also put Sunak on the political map.

Sunak also echoed his recent attack line against Starmer, saying the UK would be less safe under a Labour government. “This election will take place at a time when the world is more dangerous than since the end of the Cold War,” he said.

Tory officials have been talking up the idea that Labour’s poll lead is soft and that the ruling party still has a narrow path to victory. In the aftermath of local and mayoral elections this month that delivered a string of key victories to Starmer’s party, Sunak nevertheless said the results pointed to a hung Parliament in a general election rather than an outright majority for Labour.

Yet there is an alternative interpretation, that calling an early vote is less about pulling off a surprise win than it is about getting in before the Conservative Party’s popularity plunges even further. Improving economic data has not changed the poll picture, while other risks are building. The government’s tax cuts, for example, have let Labour argue the Tories are trying to usher in a new era of austerity that the new administration would be forced to impose.

The International Monetary Fund warned Tuesday the UK Treasury needs to find £30 billion ($38 billion) of savings to stabilize its debt burden, undercutting Sunak’s ambition to reduce taxes again. If he’s unable to make a big announcement before a vote, that undercuts the argument for putting one off.

Read more: Keir Starmer Battles Dire State of UK in Bid to Emulate Blair

There are other potential wildcards the Tories want to avoid adding to the challenges, such as more drama around Thames Water, or sewage releases by Britain’s ailing water companies. The plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda could yet face legal challenge, undermining Sunak’s lines on immigration.

“The British electorate, as the polls proved, aren’t listening to the Conservatives,” said Steven Fielding, emeritus professor at the University of Nottingham. “They’ve wanted this election for quite some time. And so in some ways, going a bit earlier than people thought might be the only way that you can get any kind of positive response.”

Still, by doing so Sunak risks eschewing key moments for his own political legacy, not least the two-year anniversary of taking office in late October. The prime minister, who embraces set-piece diplomatic events, is also due to host the European Political Community meeting at Blenheim Palace on July 18.

For Labour, the challenge is to convert a prolonged period of poll dominance — which has delivered a string of local, mayoral and parliamentary election victories in recent years — into a win in the one that matters. Defeat in the last general election in 2019 under former leader Jeremy Corbyn means Starmer needs the biggest turnaround in the postwar era to get back into power.

Read more: Labour’s Prospects Hinge On Winning Over Older, Richer Voters

Even so, the pressure is intense on Starmer to not only win but to emulate totemic former leader Tony Blair by building a legacy for Labour in power.

As the rain fell on Sunak, his speech was at times drowned out by protesters playing Things Can Only Get Better, the D-Ream song that became something of a Labour anthem after Blair used it before his 1997 election landslide.

“A vote for Labour is a vote for stability: economic and political,” Starmer said in a televised statement after Sunak spoke. “Together we can stop the chaos, we can turn the page, we can start to rebuild Britain and change our country.”

Labour has been in campaign mode for some time, and last week rolled out the six pledges Starmer will build his campaign around, including boosting the economy, reducing National Health Service waiting lists, recruiting more teachers, tackling crime and investing in green technology.

It’s a policy platform that ensures a key focus of election campaigning will be on the economy, where the Tories traditionally try to claim the upper hand. But the picture has changed dramatically in British politics, and it is now Starmer’s party that polls suggest voters trust more to deliver growth.

“This just looks like an election for Labour to win,” John Curtice, professor of politics at University of Strathclyde, said on the BBC.

--With assistance from Asad Zulfiqar, Charles Capel and Louise Moon.

(Updates with comments from Sunak in sixth paragraph, Starmer four paragraphs from bottom.)

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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