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Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announces elections in July

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced the country's next general election will take place in July.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

On the Fourth of July, as it happens. So why call for a vote when his party isn't doing well in the polls?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: These uncertain times call for a clear plan and bold action to chart a course to a secure future. You must choose in this election who has that plan.

FADEL: As Sunak heads into campaign mode, he'll face a lot of questions about his personal record - and his party's performance - as the U.K.'s fourth conservative leader in less than five years.

MARTÍNEZ: London-based journalist Willem Marx is here with all the details. Willem, yesterday's announcement was a little wet and wild. Tell us why.

WILLEM MARX: Well, Sunak came out of the famous front door at around 5 p.m, A. He stood at the podium. He started talking about his performance, first as finance minister, then as prime minister, after his predecessors Boris Johnson, Liz Truss - you may remember - both resigned in quick succession. As he was speaking about his own record as leader, two rather unfortunate things happened. It started raining really heavily, and a protester nearby used loudspeakers to drown out Sunak's words with a famous song over here titled "Things Can Only Get Better." Ironically, Tony Blair had used it as a campaign anthem back in 1997, when his Labour Party drove the previous conservative government out of office in kind of a landslide. So quite apart from the fact that Sunak's suit got very wet, it was hard to hear him when he started criticizing his opponents. That comparison was not lost on people, and for a man who prides himself on his appearance, it wasn't a great start to a campaign as far as visual metaphors go.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, it was an odd scene. British prime ministers, though, can call elections, but this announcement was not expected until a lot later in the year, until the fall, so why do it now?

MARX: Well, his party has been trailing its Labour opponents in the polls for quite a long time. Successive scandals really began during the pandemic. We had Boris Johnson holding parties at Downing Street during lockdowns. We had Putin invading Ukraine, inflation soaring here in Britain, pushing up prices in stores. Then Liz Truss, the country's shortest-serving prime minister in history, introduced a budget that kind of sent the bond market crazy. That pushed up borrowing costs and mortgages for people. In short, Sunak's party is really unpopular. He personally has incredibly low personal poll ratings. In light of this and all sorts of other policy difficulties and parliamentary defections, his opponents have been demanding an election for months, but Sunak didn't really explain why he chose July. It may simply have been because he didn't foresee the situation for him or his party getting any easier, and so, as many of the British newspapers have concluded this morning, he simply chose to kind of gamble.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So does Sunak have a strong enough record to gamble on?

MARX: Well, in fairness to him, he's time and again really explicitly told the British people they should judge him on his record and that he's more of a doer than a talker. That judgement is made a little easier by the fact that at the start of last year, he set out five key promises to the public. They included reducing inflation. That has happened, though it's not entirely down to him. He said he'd boost economic growth rates, which is finally starting to be visible after two years of really sluggish growth.

But on the other three issues, he's really struggled to make headway. He pledged to stop migrants using those small boats to cross from France, but his flagship policy to deport those people to Rwanda - it's been caught up in the courts for more than a year, hasn't yet started. Hospital wait times - they're still very, very long, and government debt is at the highest it's been in half a century.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's journalist Willem Marx. Thank you very much.

MARX: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]