Rishi Sunak’s election call makes no sense, but is good news

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, soaked in rain,  pauses as he delivers a speech to announce July 4 as the date of the UK's next general election, at 10 Downing Street in central London, on May 22, 2024. (Photo: AFP)
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, soaked in rain, pauses as he delivers a speech to announce July 4 as the date of the UK's next general election, at 10 Downing Street in central London, on May 22, 2024. (Photo: AFP)


  • Whether an act of political genius or lunacy, Britons should welcome it

An old axiom of British politics is that the Conservative Party is ruthless in its pursuit of power. Lately it has seemed relentlessly focused on losing it. It has purged talented MPs who did not toe the ideological line on Brexit, a cause that a majority of voters now think was wrong. In Boris Johnson, it picked a leader manifestly unsuited for high office. In Liz Truss, it installed the shortest-lived prime minister in British history and the person who shredded the party’s reputation for economic competence. Now, after taking a long, hard look into the electoral abyss, it has gone ahead and jumped.

On May 22nd Rishi Sunak, the current prime minister, announced that the next general election will be held on July 4th. Mr Sunak could have waited until the end of the year to call a vote. Given the enormous poll lead enjoyed by the Labour Party, the hope that things might somehow improve seemed to most observers like the Conservatives’ only reasonable strategy. Our prediction model currently gives them a chance of less than 1% of winning the election. Instead, Mr Sunak has opted to try his luck.

(The Economist)
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(The Economist)

Whether this decision is an act of political genius or lunacy—and The Economist’s money is on lunacy—Britons should welcome it. The approach of the election has distracted the government and distorted politics for months. The prospect of a transfer of power to Labour has excited endless speculation about who might lead the Tories after Mr Sunak, and encouraged would-be contenders in a future party-leadership campaign to hawk ever-more-outlandish ideas. Mr Sunak himself has repeatedly chopped and changed in advance of the election, positioning himself first as an improbable candidate of change and more recently as a figure of continuity.

Electoral considerations have warped the government’s priorities. Mr Sunak’s greatest energies have gone into an ill-conceived scheme to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda, a plan that is now unlikely to materialise. Sounding tough on small boats crossing the English Channel might help him ward off the threat on his right flank from Reform UK, an insurgent party that dislikes mass immigration, but it is not the main priority for the country or the electorate. To be fair to Mr Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor of the exchequer, they have restored much of the economic credibility lost by Ms Truss and avoided the temptation to dangle egregious sweeteners in front of voters. Even so, an early election does helpfully remove any possibility of a final irresponsible tax-cutting splurge.

It also brings forward the prospect of a period of political stability. The Labour Party is not guaranteed to win the election: the campaign to come will subject its leaders to closer scrutiny than any they have received to date . Big question-marks hover over Labour’s interventionist instincts and how it might handle the difficult trade-offs that actual power would bring, most obviously over tax and spending. But Britain’s deep-rooted problems—ailing public services, insufficient housing, stagnant productivity and more—cannot be solved by a Conservative government that is consumed by factionalism, incapable of building things and dogmatic about issues that might help the economy grow faster, including a closer relationship with the European Union. The Tories could have waited another six months to face the voters. Six weeks is better for Britain.

© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Ltd. All rights reserved. 

From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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