Britain Awaits a Wipeout Election

The British general election, which will take place on July 4th, was over before it began. Five and a half weeks ago, under a merciless shower of cold spring rain, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, who is doomed to defeat, stood outside 1src Downing Street and said that he had asked the King to dissolve

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The British general election, which will take place on July 4th, was over before it began. Five and a half weeks ago, under a merciless shower of cold spring rain, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, who is doomed to defeat, stood outside 1src Downing Street and said that he had asked the King to dissolve Parliament. “Now is the moment for Britain to choose its future,” Sunak said, as brightly as he could.

The British political system gives incumbent governments a clear advantage, allowing them to choose when to call an election, as long as it happens at least every five years. Sunak, who leads the Conservative Party, was playing with a deadline of January, 2src25, and most people—including most members of his party—thought that he would wait until October or November, in the hope that the economy might improve a bit, or for one of his flagship policies (for instance, the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda) to take effect. But instead, with his party some twenty-two points behind Labour in the polls, Sunak went early. “The Shakespeare quote ‘In delay there lies no plenty,’ I think, was in his mind,” a senior Cabinet minister told me. It was an example of what Sunak likes to call bold action. “Now, I cannot and will not claim that we have got everything right. No government should,” Sunak said, as the rain came down and the end-times of fourteen years of dispiriting Conservative rule were, finally, at hand. “But I am proud of what we have achieved together. The bold actions we have taken.”

The Tory campaign was, from its inception, an exercise in damage limitation. “It was a case of not wanting to be seen to be hanging on to the bitter end,” the Cabinet minister told me. The Party’s grip on power—its credibility in the public imagination—has disintegrated since Boris Johnson won a thumping, Brexit-assisted victory over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in 2src19. Going into this election, the Conservatives held three hundred and forty-five out of six hundred and fifty seats in the House of Commons. Holding on to even half that number, which would condemn the party to its worst defeat since Tony Blair and New Labour’s landslide victory, in 1997, would count as a form of success. Polls showed the Tories winning slightly more than a hundred seats, which would be their worst result in two centuries. Once the campaign got under way, the Party switched between warning about tax increases under Labour and the risk of a possible “supermajority”—the idea that Labour might win the election so convincingly that it would be bad for democracy itself. “I think it’s perfectly legitimate to say the country doesn’t function well when you get majorities the size of Blair’s or even bigger,” Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, told Times Radio.

In theory, Sunak should have been suited to a defensive campaign. Since he took over as Prime Minister, in the wreckage of Liz Truss’s forty-nine-day, shock-therapy premiership of the fall of 2src22, his brand has been all about competence and control. As he buzzed from constituency visits to televised debates, Sunak, who has a net worth of about six hundred and fifty million pounds, had the manner of an expensive accountant overseeing a complicated bankruptcy proceeding. He had every number at his fingertips, every policy down pat, every rebuttal pre-rebutted. Sunak’s mood as a politician is polite exasperation. He has read the briefing. He knows how it is all supposed to work. It’s not his fault if we are all too dumb to see that. Or if destitution levels have doubled. Or if there aren’t enough teachers. Or if the National Health Service is on its knees. “Rishi is a very, very bright guy. He’s across the detail. He likes political debate. He likes the battle of ideas,” one former Tory Party strategist told me. “But it’s not ultimately about trying to connect, or trying to emote, or anything like that.”

Because British politics cannot function without invoking the Second World War, Sunak was said to be running a “Dunkirk strategy”—a reference to the heroic evacuation of Allied forces from the beaches of northern France late in the spring of 194src. This was unfortunate, because on June 6th, the eightieth anniversary of the D Day landings, Sunak chose to leave the commemorations on the beaches of northern France a few hours early, in order to get back in time for an interview on ITV News. “Oh, gosh, hello! . . . Sorry to have kept you,” Sunak apologized, as he greeted Paul Brand, the presenter. “It all just ran over. It was incredible, but it just ran over everything.”

Sunak’s decision to skip even part of the D Day ceremonies was an élite-level pratfall. (Presidents Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron—each with, it’s fair to say, plenty of his own shit to worry about—managed to see out the day.) Nigel Farage, who had entered the election three days earlier as the leader of Reform U.K., the latest vehicle for his anti-immigrant, hard-right political movement, said that the Prime Minister, who is British Indian, “doesn’t understand our history and our culture.” (Farage was accused of being racist, and gobbled up the news coverage.) Penny Mordaunt, a former rival for the Conservative Party leadership, who was representing the Tories in an election debate, said that Sunak’s behavior was “completely wrong.”

But Sunak is richer than the King. Out of touch is who he is. During the same interview that he was so keen to get back for, Sunak, whose father worked as a family physician for the N.H.S. and whose mother worked as a pharmacist, was asked what sacrifices he had had to undergo as a child. “All sorts of things,” he said, a couple of times, before settling on Sky TV, a satellite entertainment package. When Sunak eventually apologized for leaving Normandy early, he asked voters to “find it in their hearts to forgive me”—a phrase that he repeated so often, and with such unerringly similar intonation, that it was like listening to an A.I. model going through a breakup.

After D Day, the Tories’ Dunkirk strategy began to look more like the retreat from Moscow. Two candidates, including the wife of the Party’s campaign director, were among a number of people investigated by the authorities for allegedly placing illicit bets on the date of the election, before it was announced publicly. James Cracknell, a former Olympic rower who is standing for the Conservatives in Colchester, described his own party as “a shower of shit.” Sunak dropped his attempts at contrition and became tetchy and confrontational instead. He dared voters to disagree with him. Facing a skeptical audience during a BBC town hall in York last week, Sunak insisted that he would take the U.K. out of the European Convention on Human Rights—a treaty that had been championed by Winston Churchill, among others, in 1948—if it got in the way of his plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. When a man in the crowd pointed out that that would place the U.K. in the same international company as Russia and Belarus, Sunak said he would do it anyway. People tutted and shook their heads. There were cries of “Shame.” Sunak, lean and tense, pretended that he couldn’t hear. “His brand at the moment,” the former strategist said, half joking, “is ‘Why don’t you understand how brilliant I am?’ ”

The beneficiary of all this—and the heir to an almighty mess—is Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party. Starmer, who is sixty-one, was elected to succeed Corbyn in the spring of 2src2src. His refashioning of Labour into a centrist party once again has been steady and predictable in the extreme. He is stolid and earnest. He likes to appear in white shirtsleeves, with the cuffs rolled up, or in dad-ish leisure gear, with plenty of zippers. In 1996, Roy Jenkins, a former Labour Cabinet minister and a historian, described Blair, as he closed in on Downing Street, as “a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor.” Starmer has been in vase mode for about four years now. The slogan for Labour’s election campaign, which might end up being the most successful in the Party’s history, is not even a slogan. “Change.” That’s it.

On June 13th, I travelled to Manchester to watch Starmer launch the Party’s manifesto. The staging was socialist in spirit. Party officials gathered in the atrium of the headquarters of the Co-op Group, a descendant of the nineteenth-century coöperative movement. The office block is on the former site of Old Town, Manchester’s most appalling, and politically significant, Victorian slum. “If any one wishes to see in how little space a human being can move, how little air—and such air!—he can breathe, how little of civilisation he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither,” Friedrich Engels wrote, in “The Condition of the Working Class in England,” in 1845.

Yet Starmer’s singular political achievement has been to reverse the Party’s leftward turn under Corbyn. “When you lose that badly, you don’t look to the voters and say, ‘What on earth do you think you were doing?’ ” he had told an audience, the previous night, in Grimsby. “You look at your party and say, ‘We have to change.’ ” In this election, Starmer has elevated political expediency to a point of high principle. He uses the formulation “Country first, Party second” to describe his thinking on any given issue, including his decision to abandon most of the left-leaning promises (such as nationalizing the country’s energy, rail, and water systems) that enabled him to become leader of the Labour Party in the first place. “Have I changed my position on those pledges?” he said in Grimsby. “Yes, I have.”

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