UK Election: An Extinction-Level Event?

27 May 2024

UK Election: An Extinction-Level Event?

By Gwynne Dyer

“Why did he do it? We were all told it would be the autumn and we were hoping by then we could turn things around. It is very perplexing,” said a former cabinet minister after Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called a surprise election for 4 July.

Sunak still had until next January before his five years were up, and right now the opinion polls predict a catastrophic defeat for his Conservative Party (also known as the Tories). Possibly even an extinction-level event. So why did he do it?

Well, one reason is that it’s not exactly ‘his’ five years. Sunak is the fourth Conservative prime minister in that period, as one failed leader after another was cast aside in a desperate search for somebody who could impose a semblance of discipline on the increasing fractious and fractured party.

First to go was Theresa May, who resigned in despair in July 2019, having failed to bring the Conservative troops together on the precise theological form that the Holy Grail of ‘Brexit’ (leaving the European Union) should take. They had narrowly won the Brexit referendum in 2016 (52% to 48%), but they could not agree on what that actually meant.

Next came Boris Johnson, a facile, lazy, self-indulgent man and a brazen liar. He lasted just three years before being forced to resign by his own party for holding drinks parties in his own Downing Street office and home during the Covid lockdowns – and then lying about it to Parliament.

Next came the mayfly prime ministership of Liz Truss, who was marinated in alt-right ideology and crashed the British economy in only 44 days before being forced to resign, again by her own party. And so, again without an intervening election, Rishi Sunak inherited what was by now seen as a ‘zombie government’ (dead but still stumbling around).

Sunak is the richest person to hold the office in modern times, thanks to his marriage to an Indian tech billionaire’s daughter. It has always seemed possible that politics might just be a hobby for him, and although he was born in England he keeps one foot in the United States, with homes in Yorkshire, London (Kensington), and California (Santa Monica).

He is a reasonably competent manager, but he has been unable to break the Conservative Party’s ‘doom spiral’. Even before he got the job voters consistently preferred the Labour Party by a two-to-one majority in the opinion polls, and so there have been constant plots to overthrow him in his own party.

Nevertheless, the general expectation in the party was that he would hang on in office until October or November because a) that would give him two full years in office, which looks better on the CV; and b) you never know, something might turn up. And that’s where things stood – until last Wednesday.

Then, with no warning to anybody in the party, Rish! (as his publicity once spelled his name) declared that the election will be held with a delay of only six weeks, i.e. 4 July. He announced it to a handful of journalists outside his own front door in a pelting downpour, looking “like a drowned ferret”, as one journalist put it. He didn’t even have an umbrella.

All the other Tories now feel betrayed by him. Why throw away their last half-year in power when the numbers look so bad now? Something might have turned up – or if not, at least they’d have had more time to look for a new job after they lose their seats in parliament.

Some speculate that another plot to overthrow Sunak was gestating, and that he felt it would be more dignified to lose an election than be dumped by his own party, but they are probably over-thinking it. As a member of his own cabinet put it: “He thought, why prolong the agony?” Put up a brave fight, lose gracefully, and then it’s California Dreaming.

Fair enough. The whole country has just been marking time while waiting to turn the page on fourteen years of Conservative rule. Even if by some miracle the Tory survivors of the July election came back in some sort of coalition government, the task of rebuilding the economy their predecessors wrecked would be long, painful and thankless. Leave that to Labour.

The Conservative Party’s real task in the near term is mere survival. It has been extraordinarily successful for almost two hundred years, but the Tories are very conscious of what happened to the Progressive Conservative Party led by their Canadian brethren, which suddenly dropped from 156 seats to only two in the 1993 election.

The defeat of Britain’s Tories this time won’t be quite that extreme, but the hard-right populists of Reform will be circling like expectant sharks, hoping to feast on the remains.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Nevertheless…umbrella”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Intervention Earth: Life-Saving Ideas from the World’s Climate Engineers’. Last year’s book, ‘The Shortest History of War’, is also still available.