Why UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called an election he is expected to lose


When British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced on Wednesday that the United Kingdom would hold a general election on July 4, many observers asked: why now?

More specifically, why did the prime minister call an election he is almost certain to lose? For months, polls have put Sunak’s Conservative Party far behind the opposition Labor Party and, as things stand, Labor leader Keir Starmer will not only win power but have a huge parliamentary majority.

The answer to that question is simple: it is highly unlikely that there will be a better time. Almost everything Sunak tries seems to backfire, and it is not unlikely that his favor with the public will worsen even further before the end of the year.

The last few days have been relatively good for Sunak. The economy appears to be recovering: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has updated the UK’s growth forecast and inflation is finally returning to something resembling a normal level.

Nothing went catastrophically wrong in the last week before calling the elections. He’s a low bar, but since he took office, he now probably has the most stable foundation to launch a campaign that he has ever had or will ever have.

Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers a speech calling for a general election outside 10 Downing Street in London on May 22.

As a key Sunak adviser told CNN:

“The prime minister came into office facing a number of key challenges: inflation, lack of growth, migration. And he considered dealing with them to be his primary mission. And he has made genuine and significant progress in that regard. On Tuesday, the IMF improved our growth forecasts, yesterday we saw inflation return to normal levels, today we see migration falling as a result of our reforms.

“So we have a solid basis to say that things are going in the right direction, and the view was that now was the best time to go to the country and say ‘this is what we’ve done, our plan is working.’ Now, who do you think has the plan and the ability to take bold steps to move this country toward a safer future?’”

Sunak had to call an election before the end of this year, constitutionally speaking. The fact that he had not done so until this week allowed his opponents to paint him as a coward, terrified of facing the public.

It didn’t help that the country has felt the need for an election for quite some time, nor that the Conservative Party has looked from the outside like a basket case for several years.

His tenure did not begin in formidable fashion. In 2010, after 13 years of Labor government, David Cameron won the general election but fell short of a majority in parliament. He was forced to form a coalition government with the centrist Liberal Democrats.

Cameron, against all odds, held the coalition together until the 2015 election, in which he won a surprising majority and secured the first fully conservative government since 1997.

The celebrations did not last long. The 2016 Brexit referendum split his party in two and made it nearly impossible for his four (yes, four) successors to govern. The first to appear was Theresa May.

A botched snap election and failure to pass her Brexit deal because her party hated it ended May’s tenure, and she was replaced by Boris Johnson in 2019. Johnson squandered his own majority when he became so burdened by scandal, including famous illegal parties. in Downing Street during the Covid-19 pandemic; he had to resign in 2022.

Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images

Sunak (centre) is shown a bottling machine during a campaign visit to the Vale of Glamorgan brewery in Barry, South Wales, on Thursday.

Liz Truss took office for 45 days, during which time she managed to wreak enough economic havoc that the pound sank to its lowest level against the dollar, interest rates soared and inflation soared. Eventually the Conservative Party tired of the chaos and put Sunak in charge as a safe hand.

Whether it has been or not is a matter of debate. Despite what conservative sources may say about his record in office, there is no denying his terrible popularity ratings in the polls.

His signature immigration policy, which would send illegal immigrants to Rwanda to have their asylum claims processed, has already cost millions even though only one person – voluntarily and with the money to do so – has made the journey.

His world-leading smoking ban, which caused Sunak great embarrassment when his own MPs did not approve of it, has been shelved due to the election.

These are just two recent examples of how things seem to be going wrong for Sunak. But the most damaging problem surrounding him is the general feeling that he is a bit of a loser and that his own party has very little faith in him. No fact, figure or soundbite can change that there is an undeniable stench of failure around him. The feeling that something is inevitable is powerful in politics and, for Sunak, defeat seems inevitable.

Of course it isn’t. There is a chance that the polls are misleading us and there is a chance that the Conservative campaign will work.

They are making it personal: a clear choice between Labor leader Starmer and Sunak. The Conservatives claim that Starmer cannot be trusted on national security, that he is a brazen opportunist, without principles and without a plan.

Right now is probably the best time to convey that message. Labor will have to rush to publish its manifesto, which will inevitably be picked apart by commentators. The longer Sunak delayed, the more time Labor had to get his house in order.

Sunak inherited a disaster, no one can deny that. It currently seems unlikely that he has cleaned up that mess enough for the Conservatives to win another term. But given the magnitude of the task before him, it makes sense for him to take advantage of this rare period of good news and hope for the best.

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