Rishi Sunak’s Exit

The Tory prime minister makes a risky move, surprisingly calling the elections for July 4th while the polls show Labour ahead by 22 percentage points over the Conservatives.

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In a majoritarian system, where each constituency elects its own MP, polls about voting intentions at the national level obviously only tell part of the story, and cannot be exactly predictive of the composition of the future Parliament. However, they do provide some indications, especially if the difference between parties is large. At the moment, polls of voting intentions in the UK see Labour ahead of the Conservatives, currently in government, by as much as 22 percentage points (here is the BBC tracker).

Therefore, the move by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who surprisingly called elections for the coming July 4, seems risky. Until a few days ago, observers were predicting that the elections (which in the UK are called by the Prime Minister) would take place between October and November, i.e. shortly before the term expires in January 2024.

However, given the situation this move could make sense: on the one hand it seeks to take advantage of some positive economic signals (the International Monetary Fund has just revised its growth forecasts upwards and inflation is falling); on the other hand it aims to prevent the even greater erosion of support for a party that has been in government for 14 years (the first five of which were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats).

The recent local elections, as well as the by-elections, have confirmed the Conservatives’ downward trend, and the Prime Minister’s celebration of the re-election of the mayor of Tees Valley amidst a long series of defeats in the local elections at the beginning of May seemed totally disproportionate.

The announcement of the vote, made by Sunak on 22 May at 5pm, seemed to be a plastic representation of a government in shambles. The Prime Minister, in his customary tailored suit, walked out of Number 10 and headed for the podium. As he began to speak, speakers strategically placed nearby by some of the protesters blared deafening music: ‘Things can only get better’, the D:Ream song that was New Labour’s anthem in the 1990s (and particularly of Blair’s triumphant 1997 election campaign). Meanwhile, heavy rain poured down on Sunak, who after a short 10-minute speech, returned indoors totally drenched. His supporters praised the coolness of a Prime Minister who was not deterred by the circumstances in order to keep up the traditional form of important Downing Street announcements. Most people, however, went wild in creating the most varied and amusing memes: among them ‘Things can only get wetter’ to mimic the title of the above-mentioned song, or ‘Gone on 4th July’, inspired by ‘Born on the 4th of July’, the Oliver Stone movie starring Tom Cruise.

The outcome of the election therefore seems to be undisputed, and Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, appears to have no obstacles to bringing the party back into government. In the following comments I do not wish to propose an alternative scenario – unthinkable at the moment – but rather I would just like to add some ‘food for thought’ for the weeks of electoral campaign.

First, as I have already written in the past, Starmer is struggling to break through among the electorate, even among a section of those who are inclined to vote Labour. Consequently, there may be center-left voters who could turn to vote for another party, for example the Liberal Democrats or the Greens. And in a majoritarian system this could erode decisive votes in those constituencies where Labour’s majority is narrower. On the other hand, this could be offset by the shift of voters of the opposite orientation, from the Conservatives to more radical parties, such as Reform UK founded by one of the promoters of Brexit, Nigel Farage.

Then there is the question of Scotland: a traditional Labour basin, in the last decade Scotland has seen its electorate shift decisively towards the independence party, the Scottish National Party. In 2010, out of 59 Scottish seats in the UK parliament, Labour won 41 (the Liberal Democrats 11, the SNP 6 and the Conservatives 1); in 2015 only one seat went to Labour (while the SNP won 56 and one seat each went to Conservatives and Liberal Democrats); in 2017 the SNP won 35, the Conservatives 13, Labour 7 and the Liberal Democrats 4; finally, in 2019, the SNP took 48, the Conservatives 6, the Liberal Democrats 4 and Labour 1. The recent elections for the Scottish Parliament in 2021 did not really show much change from the previous ones, with the SNP winning about half of the seats. However, many things have happened since 2021, most notably the fading of the independence cause, in part due to the scandals surrounding the party leader Nicola Sturgeon and her family. We will have to see whether Starmer is able to ‘bring home’ at least some of these seats (we are still talking about 59 seats out of 650 or 9.1% of the MPs in the House of Commons). The signs look encouraging, with Labour now at 39% and the SNP at 33% in the polls of voting intentions.

The election campaign has just begun and only in the coming weeks will we be able to understand more (unlike in Italy, in the UK election polls can be released until the last day). In the meantime, however, if a Conservative victory seems to be excluded, various outcomes are still possible, from a Labour triumph (currently the most likely outcome) to a victory without an absolute majority, which would then lead to a ‘hung Parliament’ and force Starmer into a coalition government.

The few positive signs for the Conservatives mentioned above are counterbalanced by many negative elements. In his short (and wet) speech on May 22, for instance, Sunak highlighted the fight against immigration among the elements he will focus on (also to secure at least the support of the party’s right wing). The government hopes to implement the much-criticized plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, but it is still far from doing it; moreover, recent figures show that the number of irregular immigrants who have arrived in the UK by crossing the Channel has already exceeded 10,000. These policies risk being counterproductive (for electoral purposes) if not implemented, because even the right-wingers of the party might not be convinced.

Certainly, given the situation, Sunak’s party leadership is not at risk: no one wants to replace him to become the ‘face’ of what is expected to be a disastrous collapse. On the contrary, as many as 78 MPs (including several high-profile figures) have already announced that they will not stand again. These include, for example, Michael Gove (Brexit standard bearer and several times minister), whose re-election was already seen as at risk against the Liberal Democrat candidate, and Andrea Leadsom (who came second in the party leadership race in 2016).

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Rishi Sunak’s Exit ultima modifica: 2024-05-28T01:38:25+02:00 da FRANCESCO GUIDI BRUSCOLI
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