Why Rishi Sunak Called an Early Election—and Rained on His Own Parade

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The British public was always poised to go to the polls at some point this year. The question was: when? After months of speculation, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak finally gave the public an answer this week. “Now is the moment for Britain to choose its future,” the Conservative Party leader announced in a spontaneous address outside 10 Downing Street on Wednesday. “We will have a general election on the 4th of July.”

The optics couldn’t have been much worse. Sunak’s election pitch, which rested on the notion that his ruling Conservatives had “a plan” for the country, was undercut by the prime minister’s apparent lack of preparedness for the London rain. He spoke for roughly seven minutes, though much of it was drowned out by nearby protesters who blasted the opposition Labour Party’s 1997 campaign anthem “Things Can Only Get Better” at full volume. Drenched and increasingly inaudible, one could only speculate as to why Sunak would impulsively choose to call an election now, when his party is 20 points behind in the polls and with relatively little to show for his 18 months in office. (Under British law, Sunak had until at least January 2025 to hold the contest.) Perhaps the government recognized that things such as the economy and inflation—which as of this week has fallen to its lowest level in three years—have improved as much as they’re going to. If anything, experts warn, the worst may be to come.

Whatever the reason, a U.K. election is six weeks away, and already in full swing. For the ruling Conservatives, the contest will primarily be a referendum on their 14 years in power—a period largely defined by a decade of crippling austerity, Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, and seemingly endless political turmoil during which consecutive prime ministers came and went at a remarkable clip. When Sunak entered office in Oct. 2022, mere weeks after his predecessor Liz Truss crashed the economy during her short-lived premiership, he pledged to restore stability to the markets and to British politics. Despite some early successes, his premiership has largely been marked by what he hasn’t achieved—chief among them his promises to cut waiting times for Britain’s National Health Service and stop the flow of migrants coming across the English Channel.

“I cannot and will not claim that we have got everything right,” Sunak, in a tacit acknowledgement of this, said during his increasingly sodden speech. “But I am proud of what we have achieved together. The bold actions we have taken. And I’m confident about what we can do in the future.”

For Labour and its leader Keir Starmer, this campaign will be about reminding voters of everything that came before—and making the case for why the Labour Party, transformed under Starmer’s leadership into a more centrist political force, can bring about the change voters seek. “We will stop the chaos,” Starmer pledged in an address following the election announcement, adding that if the Conservatives get another term in power, “they will feel entitled to carry on exactly as they are. Nothing will change.”

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In a contest between change and continuity, most everyone—from political analysts to pollsters and even most voters—expect that change will win out. But some experts warn that the level of change Labour will bring could be limited. “The change is all about the style and mood—it’s not about policy,” says Anand Menon, the director of the U.K. in a Changing Europe think tank, noting that on certain issues such as raising taxes and foreign policy, not much separates the two parties. “There is precious little difference between what they’re saying on most things, even Brexit actually.”

“Is this election going to be about change? The cynical answer is yes,” Menon adds, “until the day after, when everything’s the bloody same.”

Still, for much of the British public, the prospect of fresh elections nonetheless comes as a much-needed reprieve after so much uncertainty and turmoil. So dour is the mood among Conservative lawmakers that more than 65 of its lawmakers, or roughly one-fifth of the party, have announced that they will not run in the next election. If the polls bear out, the once-dominant party that claimed 365 seats in Westminster could be reduced to as little as 92—an outcome far worse than the last time Labour swept the Conservatives from power in ‘97. 

While many observers—and indeed many Conservative lawmakers—won’t be able to make sense of Sunak’s decision to call an early election, the prime minister can take solace in the fact that most voters agreed with his timing. Depending on how the next six weeks go, his most popular decision to date could also be his last.

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Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com