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UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. (Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

UK PM calls surprise election

May 22, 2024

By Rob Picheta, Luke McGee and Sophie Tanno, CNN

(CNN) — UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a snap general election for July 4 in a statement outside Downing Street on Wednesday evening, as his Conservative party faces an uphill struggle to extend its 14 years in power.

Soaked by torrential rain and battling to be heard against extremely loud music being blared by protesters, Sunak said: “Now is the moment for Britain to choose its future.” He also attacked his opponents, saying that by voting for the Labour Party, Britain would “risk going back to square one.” But he also admitted: “I cannot and will not claim that we have got everything right.”

A drenched Sunak said that the poll will take place at a time when the world is “more dangerous than it has been since the end of the Cold War,” referencing Russia’s “brutal” war in Ukraine and the ensuing risk to energy security and global stability. He added that such uncertain times called for “clear and bold action.”

The embattled leader also referred to his time as finance minister during the Covid-19 pandemic, in his first major political role. “In the last five years our country has fought through the most challenging times since the Second World War,” he said. “You met that challenge and then some, and I have never been prouder to be British.”

Sunak was required to hold a vote by January 2025, and had long resisted calls to be specific about his plans. But a fall in inflation rates, announced earlier Wednesday, provided the backdrop for his announcement.

The decision will fire the starting gun on a six-week campaign that is almost universally expected to conclude in the demise of Sunak’s Conservative government.

The move will be welcomed by the buoyant Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer, which is soaring in the opinion polls and has sought to present itself as a reformed and moderate group that is ready for power.

Starmer was quick to respond to Sunak’s announcement. Speaking at an indoor news conference, the opposition leader said: “Tonight the prime minister has finally announced the next general election.”

He framed the vote as a “chance to change for the better – your future, your community, your country.”

“It will feel like a long campaign, I’m sure of that, but no matter what else is said and done, that opportunity for change is what this election is about,” he said.

Starmer begins the vote about 20 points ahead in the polls, so he will be running as a favorite as well as a challenger.

Sunak, meanwhile, will hope that a shrewd campaign could result in spectacular upset for Labour and extend a period of Tory rule which began in 2010 and has overseen austerity economics, Brexit, the Covid pandemic and a cost of living crisis.

He is the fifth Tory leader to serve during that time, taking over from the ill-fated Liz Truss, whose disastrous term imploded just six weeks after it began and exacerbated the financial woes crippling the United Kingdom.

Sunak’s party will likely put his efforts to tackle illegal migration at the center of his campaign; a recent move to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda finally became law last month, and the first flights could potentially leave during the campaign.

But Labour will seek to highlight the government’s struggles to ease soaring prices, the state of Britain’s over-stretched healthcare service, and the sleaze scandals that have tanked the Tories’ reputation among a large swath of British voters.

Smaller parties could upend the designs of the two dominant groups, even if it is virtually impossible for them to return a government. The new, anti-migration Reform Party and the centrist Liberal Democrats will look to challenge Sunak in some of his party’s historical strongholds, complicating his efforts to hold power.

North of the border, the pro-independence Scottish National Party will hope to hold off a Labour challenge and regain its dominance in Scotland’s politics despite a rocky period and the recent ascension of its third leader in 15 months.

The Conservatives under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a healthy majority in the last UK-wide vote, in December 2019, pledging to push through Britain’s exit from the European Union – an issue that had transfixed politics in the country for more than three years.

But Johnson’s premiership collapsed after a string of scandals, paving the way for his then-finance minister Sunak to emerge as a frontrunner for the leadership.

Adding to the sense that the Conservatives are nearing the end of their time in power, dozens of Tory MPs — including former cabinet ministers and ex-Prime Minister Theresa May — announced they would not seek re-election.

Opinion polls currently point to outcomes ranging from a comfortable Labour win to a devastating electoral wipeout for the Conservatives.

But recent election and referendum campaigns have proved volatile, and Tories still publicly hopeful of success have pointed to mixed levels of enthusiasm for Labour’s offering.

The vote will take place on Thursday July 4 in all of the UK’s 650 parliamentary constituencies, and counting will occur overnight, with the two main parties seeking to cross the 326 mark needed for a majority.

A government will be formed as soon as that mark is crossed, and take charge immediately, pending the symbolic approval of King Charles III.

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