Britain’s Elections Are Comic Relief For Politics Watchers In U.S.

The contrast between two political systems could not have been starker. On Tuesday, a former U.S. president sat in a New York courtroom facing criminal charges. On the same day, the leader of a British political party more than once fell into a lake while attempting to stand on a paddleboard.The antics on the other

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The contrast between two political systems could not have been starker. On Tuesday, a former U.S. president sat in a New York courtroom facing criminal charges. On the same day, the leader of a British political party more than once fell into a lake while attempting to stand on a paddleboard.

The antics on the other side of the pond underline the comic tone at the opening of a six-week general election campaign in the U.K. — which has become a respite for politics watchers in America, many of whom fear that their own November elections could feature violence, if not the end of democracy as they know it.

For politicos seeking to trade existential dread for a bit of fun, look no further than the British elections.

Last week, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak rolled the dice when he announced an earlier-than-expected election for July 4, a vote that few think his right-wing Conservative Party will win.

The center-left Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer, has consistently led opinion polls in recent years, often by 20-plus points. The dominance is less a reflection of enthusiasm for the Labour project than a sign of the staleness that has enveloped the Conservatives after holding power for 14 years.

Following Boris Johnson’s COVID-19 rule-breaking and Liz Truss tanking the pound, Sunak inherited a party taking on water. But the former investment banker has done little to steady the ship. Sunak is habitually gaffe-prone, and has already surpassed himself on the campaign trail, prompting derision even with his choice to call an election.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak makes a statement amid rain outside 1src Downing St. in London on May 22, announcing that the U.K. general election will take place July 4.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak makes a statement amid rain outside 10 Downing St. in London on May 22, announcing that the U.K. general election will take place July 4.

Anadolu via Getty Images

In an address to the nation outside 10 Downing St. in London, Sunak pitched himself as the man with the “plan” to solve Britain’s woes, ranging from an economy that’s struggled with productivity issues since long before the COVID-19 pandemic to the unsustainable strain being placed on the beloved National Health Service.

But images of Sunak drenched with rain during his address exposed something of a flaw in his core message to voters.

“I would have had an umbrella,” said a gleeful Starmer, who launched his campaign indoors. “A ‘plan’ would have been to have an umbrella.”

That was just the start of Sunak’s comedy tour of the U.K.

A day later, the prime minister visited a brewery in Barry, southern Wales, and tried to energize a stony-faced group of workers with a conversation about the 2024 European Championship soccer tournament, which begins next month.

“So are you looking forward to all the football?” he asked, apparently failing to appreciate that while U.K. nations England and Scotland will participate in the championship, Wales will not after being eliminated in the qualifying stages. Some also questioned why strategists took Sunak, a teetotaler, to a brewery.

In any case, the incident prompted a wave of social media commentators to use a British idiom for someone who lacks the requisite leadership skills: “He couldn’t organize a piss-up” — a drinking session — “in a brewery.”

“Are you looking forward to all the football?”

Rishi Sunak on the first day of campaigning at a brewery in south Wales.

Note: Wales hasn’t qualified for the Euros. pic.twitter.com/qYdsWk1uf8

— Peter Gillibrand (@GillibrandPeter) May 23, 2024

One of Sunak’s next stops was a harbor in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Somehow, the Conservatives were not clear-eyed enough to see one of the biggest political metaphors coming into view, as this was the site where the doomed Titanic ocean liner was built more than 110 years ago.

A journalist for Belfast Live asked Sunak the inevitable yet essential iceberg-themed question: Was he “captaining a sinking ship” in this election? The prime minister stuck to his talking points about the “plan.”

Some critical assessments of Sunak’s campaign moments may be excessively harsh. A few judged the Southampton F.C. supporter’s less-than-impressive soccer skills as he promoted a controversial proposal for 18-year-olds to perform a year of mandatory military or civilian national service, a policy that Britain abandoned more than 60 years ago.

Meanwhile, Sunak has little to do with some unforced Conservative errors. For example, one of the ministers in his government said that the early election call had ruined his vacation plans, so his early campaign work would take place from Greece.

And it’s not just Sunak and company who are providing journalists with headline opportunities — step forward the Liberal Democrats.

While the U.S. is dominated by two political parties, the U.K. electoral system allows for third and even fourth parties to be competitive for a significant number of the 650 seats in the House of Commons that are up for grabs. The performance at the polls of the Liberal Democrats — which, as the third-biggest party in the 2010 elections, held power with the Conservatives for five years — could have a huge bearing on how the next Parliament looks, with wins over the Tories in southern England likely to sweep Labour to power with an even bigger majority than predicted.

So when Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey took to the water on a paddleboard in Windermere, England, seeking to highlight the dumping of raw sewage into Britain’s rivers and seas, reporters took notice. For reasons not obviously journalistic, one went so far as to interview Davey from inside a kayak while holding a boom mic.

The stunt delivered what most of those dragged to a remote corner of the U.K. hoped for: pictures of a British political leader falling into a lake. Repeatedly. But were there some games afoot? When the BBC asked if Davey had jumped in “on purpose,” he replied: “Once I did. The rest I just kept falling in. But it’s fun.”

Britain does its political scandals differently.

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