Rishi Sunak
Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak holds a Q&A with staff of a West William distribution centre in Ilkeston in the East Midlands on May 23, 2024 as part of a campaign event ahead of a general election on July 4. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: UK political leaders kicked off six weeks of campaigning on Thursday, but the question on most minds was why Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the general elections six months early.

Sunak ended months of speculation about the date of the vote in a rain-soaked speech Wednesday outside Downing Street saying the country would go to the polls on July 4.

The Conservatives, in power since 2010 but battered by Brexit, a slew of scandals and ideological infighting, have consistently trailed the main opposition Labour party in opinion polls for two years.

How often are general elections held in the UK?
The latest a Parliament can be dissolved for a general election is on the fifth anniversary of the day it first met.
For the current Parliament, that date is December 17, 2024.
However, 25 working days are then allowed to prepare for the election.
So the next election had to be held by January 28, 2025.
The prime minister can call the election at a time of choosing, within the five-year period.

That gap has widened, prompting many commentators to predict a landslide win for Labour.

So Sunak’s decision to call polls early took many party members by surprise, and left some fearing that six weeks would not be enough to convince skeptical voters.

'Right timing'

On Thursday, Sunak remained adamant that the timing was right. He told workers at a distribution centre in an English town that the economy was turning a corner with inflation down, energy bills falling, wages rising and increasing growth.

“So look, even though there is more work to do ... the plan is working and we have that economic stability back,” Sunak told some 30 workers in a warehouse.

In calling early polls Sunak has taken a calculated risk. Most UK newspapers described Sunak’s decision as a “gamble”.

Last year’s mild recession is over, gross domestic product is growing strongly and inflation is roughly at the central bank’s 2% target.

On Wednesday, Sunak said inflation was “back to normal” and “brighter days are ahead.”

rishi sunak
Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak (2L) arrives with Britain's Wales Secretary David TC Davies (L) and Vale of Glamorgan MP Alun Cairns (2R) during a visit to the Vale of Glamorgan Brewery in Barry, south Wales on May 23, 2024 as part of a campaign event ahead of a general election on July 4. Image Credit: AFP

For the electorate, unemployment is low, wages have outpaced inflation for 10 months and workers are feeling the benefit of the 20 billion pound ($25 billion) tax cuts.

All these have prompted Sunak to believe that this offers the Conservative party its best chance in the polls.

With the party lagging behind in opinion polls, Sunak considered it best to seize the moment and highlight the government’s successes rather than wait a few more months and risk uncertainty.

Safe choice

Sunak has presented himself as the safe choice in an increasingly dangerous world and proclaimed the Tories as the party of economic stability.

Addressing a room of 100 or so Conservative members of Parliament and campaigners late Wednesday in East London, Home Secretary James Cleverly argued that Sunak was the right person to lead them into the election. “We need a leader at the head of the government who is willing to make the right choices,” Cleverly said, echoing Sunak’s claims that the country would be less safe under a Labour government.

Cleverly referred to Sunak’s own tenure as chancellor, when subsidies to help soften the economic blow of Covid-19 propelled his popularity upward. “Inflation is now back where it should be,” Cleverly said, adding that was “because of choices made when Rishi Sunak was chancellor and choices he made when he was prime minister.”

What happens next?
Parliament will be prorogued on Friday - suspending its current session and formally dissolved next Thursday.
That's when MPs leave parliament to either stand down or seek reelection, marking the start of the official five-week campaign.
Voting for the 650 parliamentary constituencies in the lower House of Commons is under the "first past the post" system, with results expected on July 5 and a quick turnaround if one party secures a majority of seats.
The new parliament will be summoned to meet on July 9, when a new speaker will be elected and MPs sworn in. The formal State Opening will be on July 17.

Blindsided by decision

But Sunak’s upbeat mood was in stark contrast to that among Conservative lawmakers who said they were blindsided by the decision.

Those Conservatives who are planning to run started to realise how much of an uphill battle they faced to retain their parliamentary seats. Those whose constituencies had disappeared in a redrawing of electoral boundaries for this election wondered whether they would even be offered a seat.

More than 65 Conservative lawmakers have announced they will step down at the election, including some of the party’s best-known politicians such as former Prime Minister Theresa May.

Who forms the government?
After the votes have been counted, the King asks the leader of the party with the most MPs to become prime minister and to form a government.
The leader of the party with the second highest number of MPs becomes the leader of the opposition.
If no party wins a majority, the result is a hung parliament.
At this point, the largest party might decide to form a coalition government with another party or operate as a minority government, relying on votes from other parties to pass any laws.

The vote - the first to be held in July in the UK since 1945, when Labour won - will be Sunak’s first national electoral test, as he was appointed Tory leader by his own MPs in October 2022.

Keir Starmer and Shadow Deputy Prime Minister Angela Rayner
British opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and Shadow Deputy Prime Minister Angela Rayner attend a Labour general election campaign event at Priestfield Stadium, the home of Gillingham football club in Gillingham, southeast Britain, May 23, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

After Sunak’s speech, Labour leader Keir Starmer, a 61-year-old former human rights lawyer and chief state prosecutor, published a slick election video saying Labour would “stop the chaos” of Conservative rule and “rebuild Britain”.

“If they get another five years they will feel entitled to carry on exactly as they are. Nothing will change,” said Starmer.

Labour also promises economic stability, saying the Tories’ reputation for sound stewardship of the nation’s finances remained stained by former premier Liz Truss’s short-lived tenure of 49 days.

- With inputs from agencies