Home » Rishi Sunak names July 4 for UK general election: What’s next?

Rishi Sunak names July 4 for UK general election: What’s next?

British Prime Minister (PM) Rishi Sunak has announced a snap general election to be held in the United Kingdom on July 4, despite having until January next year to hold one. Sunak, who is leader of the Conservative Party, and leaders of other political parties began their election campaigns on Thursday.

The 44-year-old prime minister made the surprise announcement in the pouring rain outside his Downing Street office in London on Wednesday.

So why has he announced an election now and what happens next?

Is this a surprise announcement?

A general election in the UK is required to be held within five years of the last one, which was in January 2019 when Boris Johnson led the Conservative Party to another triumph with an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons. The Conservatives have been in power since 2010, initially as part of a power-sharing, coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Following the 2015 election, the Conservatives became the sole party in power after the Liberal Democrats lost 49 of their 57 parliamentary seats.

While many expected the next election to take place in the autumn of this year, Sunak surprised observers by calling it for early July.

The Conservative Party has endured a succession of new leaders amid tumultuous times in recent years – particularly since the resignation of David Cameron following the controversial Brexit referendum in 2016.

Sunak has been prime minister for less than two years, following the 45-days-long premiership of Liz Truss. Truss resigned in October 2022 following an uproar over her Chancellor’s minibudget announcing large-scale tax cuts and borrowing and causing financial instability. Truss had beaten Sunak in a leadership vote following the resignation of Boris Johnson, who had become a deeply polarising figure within his party, largely as a result of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He had survived a no-confidence vote in June 2022 but resigned in July following mass resignations from his government.

In his announcement this week, Sunak claimed responsibility for the UK’s improving economy as British inflation dropped to 2.3 percent in April, marking its lowest level since July 2021.

“I came to office, above all, to restore economic stability,” said Sunak, referring to the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war.

How will the election work?

Eligible voters, who are UK citizens or resident Irish citizens aged 18 or over on election day, in every part of the UK, will vote for a member of parliament (MP) to represent their constituency in the House of Commons, the lower house of the UK Parliament, for a term of up to five years. There are a total of 650 constituencies and nearly 50 million people are eligible to vote.

Each registered voter is entitled to one vote. They can either vote in advance by post or at their local polling station in their constituency by showing a photo ID and marking their choice on a ballot paper on the day of the election. People can also request a proxy vote, enabling someone else to vote on their behalf if they are travelling or have a medical issue, among other circumstances that render them unable to vote in person.

Polls will be open between 7am (06:00 GMT) and 10pm. Votes start being counted as soon as polls close and results are usually available by the next morning.

The party which wins the most seats in the House of Commons is likely to form the new government and the prime minister is the leader of that party. However, the prime minister still has to be officially appointed by the monarch, who will formally invite him or her to form a government. The prime minister then appoints ministers in other departments.

By convention, in the UK, general elections are always held on a Thursday – which July 4 is. While there is no legal requirement for this, every general election since 1935 has fallen on a Thursday.

Will the UK Parliament be dissolved?

Yes. On Wednesday, Sunak was granted permission by King Charles to dissolve Parliament and the dissolution will take place on May 30.

Any proposed legislation will either have to be passed before that or it will be scrapped. Proposed legislation cannot be carried over to the new House of Commons once it reassembles following the election.

The current MPs will step down from their seats and return to their constituencies to run campaigns as parliamentary hopefuls for the next six weeks leading up to the election.

What happens to the government in the run-up to the election?

Government activity is restricted from the moment an announcement of a general election is made until the formation of a newly elected government, under the UK law of “purdah”, a word which is Hindustani in origin and means “curtain” or “veil”.

Civil servants are bound by this law to be politically impartial. This means central and local government cannot make any announcements about any new initiatives or plans that might be seen as advantageous for one particular political party. Purdah does not restrict political candidates from canvassing for votes, however.

What do polls suggest are the main issues at stake?

The latest poll by British public opinion and data company YouGov suggests that the economy is the most pressing issue in the UK, with 49 percent concerned with this issue as polled on May 20. This is closely followed by health at 44 percent, and immigration and asylum at 41 percent.

Findings from the April 2024 Issues Index from Ipsos, the global market and public opinion research group, are consistent with this, with the economy leading as the most important concern, followed by health.

More than one-third (34 percent) of respondents to the survey by Ipsos said they believed that the economy was an important issue and 29 percent of respondents mentioned the National Health Service (NHS).

However, concern about the NHS has fallen six percentage points since March, according to Ipsos. Some 27 percent of respondents selected inflation as a cause for concern on the Ipsos Index while 24 percent said immigration was a significant issue.

Mortgage rates spiked during the government of Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss whose financial reforms (most of which were later repealed) caused interest rates to rise, while waiting lists for the NHS have significantly grown and Sunak’s controversial anti-immigration bill to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda only recently passed through Parliament after facing several legal challenges.

Does Sunak stand a chance in this upcoming election?

Sunak’s Conservative “Tory” party has been in power for the past 14 years, but this election may change that. Politico’s aggregate polls suggest that the main opposition party, Labour, is ahead of the Conservatives by 21 percentage points as of May 13. The gap has widened over the past two years, from just 6 percentage points in May 2022.

In April, YouGov said its research indicated that Labour would win 403 seats, and the Conservatives would win 155 in any upcoming general election.

Based on this, many predict that Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, 61, will be the next PM.

However, Labour is under pressure and may be losing support from some parts of its traditional base – particularly students and Muslims – due to its stance on the Israeli war on Gaza. A YouGov poll commissioned by Action For Humanity in April suggested that 56 percent of the general UK public – and 71 percent of those who intend to vote Labour – support halting arms sales to Israel. The same poll suggested that an even higher 59 percent believe that Israel is violating human rights in Gaza.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer’s comments during a televised interview, in which he appeared to approve of the Israeli government’s cutting off of water and power to Gaza early on in the war, caused alarm among many Labour voters.

What do political leaders think of Sunak’s election announcement?

“After 14 years, it’s time for change. Stop the chaos, turn the page, start to rebuild. Vote Labour,” opposition Labour Party leader Starmer said in an upbeat campaign video posted on his X page on Thursday.

Leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey also posted on X, welcoming the announcement and saying that all elected members of his party will fight for a “fair deal for you and your community”.

Sunak also received criticism from Nigel Farage, the former leader of the Brexit party and, before that, the leader of the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), who denounced the Conservatives’ launch of the general election as “farcical”.