Home » U.K. Parliament dissolves, and election campaign drama gets underway

U.K. Parliament dissolves, and election campaign drama gets underway

LONDON — The British Parliament was dissolved on Thursday, which is less cinematic than it sounds. It does mean that all the lawmakers in the House of Commons have lost their seats and must now face the voters, some with dread. The election is July 4.

So the race has begun, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party promising “security” and Keir Starmer’s Labour Party selling “change,” the unthreatening kind.

Labour is up 20 percentage points in opinion polls, which might portend a return of center-left soft socialism after 14 years of center-right Tory rule. There is some debate about the “socialism” part.

Here’s the election drama so far:

Unlike in the United States, this is no rematch

This is not a repeat of Britain’s last general election, in 2019, when a jolly Boris Johnson rolled over an unpopular Jeremy Corbyn under the banner “Get Brexit Done.”

Most politicians — on both sides — now shun the B-word.

Five years ago, Johnson won a thumping majority. Labour’s working-class “red wall” in the north of England crumbled as lifelong Labour voters fled to the Conservatives.

Then came the pandemic, lockdown-busting parties at 10 Downing Street and a recession.

Today? Johnson is AWOL. He was chucked out by his own lawmakers for his role in a string of scandals. The former prime minister says that his diary is full and that he will have little time to campaign for Conservatives. He is giving paid speeches. Overseas.

Corbyn is still around, but was suspended from Labour in 2020 for his response to a report on antisemitism in the party. He will run for his old seat in North London as an independent.

Rainy days, sinking ships and exit signs

Sunak has already stumbled a bit in his campaign launch. He announced the coming snap election in the pouring rain outside Downing Street. Headline writers couldn’t resist: “Things will only get wetter.” Starmer quipped that a man standing in the rain without an umbrella is a man without a plan.

Then Sunak huddled with political reporters under a sign that read “EXIT.”

Then he campaigned at the site of the Belfast shipyard that built the Titanic.

Labour is playing it safe

Starmer delivered his first full campaign speech on Thursday, declaring that voters can trust him on “economic security, border security and national security.”

Earlier, the Labour leader bashed Sunak for “rummaging around in the toy box of bad ideas, and putting one on the table every day, unfunded and un-costed.”

For his part, Starmer appears to be playing it cautious — no big, no bold — sticking with Labour’s poll-tested, safe, vague six “first steps” if they win.

Those steps: delivering economic stability; cutting wait times for appointments at the National Health Service; cracking down on “anti-social behavior” by deploying more police; creating a publicly owned, mostly green power company; and recruiting new teachers in key subjects.

The Economist magazine said voters were being faced with a choice of “incompetence or opacity.”

Sunak tries to narrow the gap with new policies

Sunak doesn’t have much to show for his year and a half as prime minister. He argues that he helped families with paid furloughs during the pandemic. But two of his signature initiatives — deportation flights to Rwanda and “smoke-free generation” legislation — are on hold until after the vote. And yet Sunak has been tossing out big ideas for his next administration, surprising some of his own (former) cabinet ministers.

He has proposed that every 18-year-old do a year of mandatory military training or monthly weekends of civic service. He said it would “keep kids out of trouble,” boost morale and provide fresh troops to face a dangerous world.

Gen Z responded with clever memes.

He has also promised to create 100,000 high-skilled apprenticeships a year by scrapping subsidies for “rip-off” university degrees that don’t lead to careers.

Not everyone has to go to university, and that’s a clear choice at this election, because the Labour Party are still clinging to this idea that the only way to succeed in life is to go to university,” Sunak said. “That’s simply not right.”

Asked to name a Mickey Mouse degree he would whack, Sunak declined.

Competing for Westminster or Wembley?

The British political press had some fun when they were briefed by anonymous Conservative sources who labeled the 61-year-old Labour leader “sleepy,” taking a page out of the Trump playbook.

It didn’t get much traction. A top Labour figure, Wes Streeting, joked that the upcoming TV debates between the two candidates should be replaced with a soccer challenge.

Sunak, 44, tried to dribble a ball at recent campaign event. He didn’t excel.

Starmer, 61, plays five-a-side football regularly.

Age is expected to be an important predictor of voting behavior, with younger people picking Labour and retirees opting for Conservatives. But Labour is also the most popular party for every age group under 70.

How immigration figures in

Conservatives are concerned about their older voters peeling off to Reform UK, a right-wing populist party, formally called the Brexit Party. Reform is in third place in polling averages — at a substantial 11 percent (Labour is 45 percent; Conservatives, 24 percent).

Founder Nigel Farage is now the party’s honorary president. He is not standing in this election — and has never won a seat at Westminster. But he is helping to support Reform candidates on the campaign trail. On Thursday, Farage and party leader Richard Tice announced new hard-line policies on immigration, to address, as Tice put it, Britain’s “deadly addiction” to “cheap overseas labor.”

Britain left the European Union in part to “take back control” of its borders. But while the issue of immigration remains a top concern for Conservative voters, British voters overall are most concerned with the National Health Service and a cost-of-living crisis.

Sunak’s plan to ship to Rwanda migrants arriving via boat across the English Channel won’t happen until July — if it ever happens at all. Labour calls the policy inhumane and wasteful and vows to dump it.

Leading Tories are standing down

We won’t know until June 7 the names of all the candidates who’ve made the cut to run for a seat in the House of Commons, but we do know that a large number of lawmakers — 134 so far — are calling it quits. Most of those fleeing front-line political work are Conservatives. Gone but not forgotten will be former prime minister Theresa May, battered down over Brexit, alongside brand-name Tories such as former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab and the current leveling-up secretary, Michael Gove.

Zac Goldsmith, a Tory peer serving in the House of Lords, created a stir when he posted on X: “The hope is that when Sunak disappears off to California in a few weeks there are at least some decent MPs left around which to rebuild.”

Sunak, who met his wife at Stanford University, has run hedge funds in California and owns a penthouse in Santa Monica, was forced to respond, “It’s simply not true. I mean, it’s just simply not true.”

If his party loses the general election, but he is reelected to Parliament as a lawmaker, Sunak has promised he would serve.