What you need to know about the 4 July UK general election

Author: Editors Desk, Nick Hopkins Source: The Guardian
May 29, 2024 at 09:08
The British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, campaigning in Buckinghamshire. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
The British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, campaigning in Buckinghamshire. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

What’s gone wrong for the prime minister? And why does everyone think his Conservative party will lose?

The UK is holding a general election on 4 July. Here’s what you need to know.

What exactly is this again?

This is the one that counts. A nationwide vote called by the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, it will lead to the formation of a new government for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, for up to five years.

The UK is divided into 650 constituencies, with parties putting up candidates who will win their seat and become a member of parliament (MP) by a simple majority of voters. This system is known as first past the post. There is no proportional representation in general elections. This tends to be good news for the main parties – the Conservatives and Labour – and terrible for smaller parties, which can win a lot of votes across many constituencies but not enough to win many seats outright. The party with the most MPs will have the chance to form a government – and if it does so, its leader becomes prime minister.

Why call the election now?

A very good question. Even some of his own MPs are a bit baffled. His Conservative government is deeply unpopular. And Sunak is seemingly as unpopular as his party. He and his party have until 4 July – election day – to pull off what would be a remarkable change in their fortunes. Polls can be wrong and election campaigns can take unusual turns, but few commentators in the UK think this is remotely likely. The Economist magazine said it was akin to political “lunacy”. And yet, as bleak as the situation seems to be, Sunak was required by law to call for an election to be held before 28 January – and may be thinking that things will only get worse for him the longer the year goes on. So he has gambled.

What’s gone wrong for the Conservatives?

Pretty much everything. At the last general election the Conservatives won a thumping 80-seat majority, in large part thanks to the campaigning skills of the party’s mercurial then leader, Boris Johnson. But Johnson disintegrated as prime minister. His shambling “cheeky chappy” demeanour was charming to some. Until it turned out that this was not a valuable characteristic for leading a government. Brexit – leaving the European Union – was his baby. And that hasn’t gone well: few, if any, of the opportunities it was supposed to offer have materialised. When the media exposed how Johnson’s officials had been partying during Covid lockdowns, often at his official residence in London, 10 Downing Street, he was doomed.

His successor was Liz Truss. She managed a feat of great political rarity: she made a bad situation much worse. Her 45 days in office in September and October 2022 brought new meaning to the phrase “crash and burn”, with a radical free-market budget that proved utterly calamitous. She was forced to resign, making her the shortest-serving PM in British history. Sunak took over …

... and how has Sunak fared?

Not well at all. The polls suggest the Conservatives have failed to recover from the Johnson/Truss debacles. Sunak, seen as a safer pair of hands, has loudly hailed very modest improvements in the economy under his leadership. But people don’t appear to be listening. They blame his party for making the cost of living crisis more painful than it should have been. His plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda has been beset by legal problems and roundly mocked and criticised. He also has occasional bouts of foot-in-mouth disease: at a campaign event in Wales last week, he asked people if they were looking forward to the European football championship. A stony silence may have reminded him that Wales had not qualified for the tournament.

What about his rivals?

His chief opponent is the leader of the Labour party, Sir Keir Starmer. Labour is more than 20 points ahead in the polls, but that is likely to be more a reflection of the Conservatives’ unpopularity than of any great enthusiasm for Starmer. He has spent the last four years pushing the party back into the centre ground of politics, casting aside or sidelining leftwingers in his party. But he is cautious by nature and critics would say he is just a bit, well, dull. The tactic seems to be to let the Conservatives continue to implode and commit Labour to as little as possible in terms of new policy. So far, so good. It’s a strategy that has given him a huge head start. But can you win an election like that?

There are other factors working in Labour’s favour, too. Its traditional rival in Scotland, the independence-supporting Scottish National party (SNP), is in the doldrums. And the Conservatives will face stiff competition in some seats from the new Reform UK party. Reform’s most famous supporter and cheerleader is Nigel Farage, the rightwing populist who has chosen not to fight for a seat himself, saying he wanted to spend more time helping Donald Trump win a second term as president of the US.

So Starmer to win?

Logic suggests this to be the case. But British politics has been in such a state of perpetual chaos and turmoil over the last few years that nothing would come as a surprise. When Johnson won the last election, the pundits said the Conservatives would be in power for a decade and Labour was doomed. Less than five years later, here we are.

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