UK Heading for General Election

After months of feverish speculation, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has decided to go for a general election in the United Kingdom on July 4. The choice is fascinating, for the date has historical resonance, instantly reminding us of the US Declaration of Independence in 1776. Only Sunak knows why he chose this date to go to the polls, though it is common knowledge that both he and his wife were once students at Stanford University, where they first met. He was a permanent resident in the United States, and worked for Goldman Sachs investment bank and hedge fund firms. His wife, Akshata Murthy, is daughter of an Indian billionaire, N. R. Narayana Murthy, founder of multinational IT company Infosys. Akshata Murty owns shares worth hundreds of millions of dollars in her father’s company. Rishi Sunak has considerable wealth of his own.

British newspapers have described Sunak’s choice of going to the polls in early July a massive gamble. For over a year, the governing Conservative Party has been running, on average, more than 20 percent behind the main opposition Labour Party led by Kier Starmer. Most political analysts give Sunak little chance of winning again, though the gap is expected to narrow as polling day draws nearer. The Conservatives have been in power since 2010, when 13 years of Labour government ended.

Fourteen years of Conservative rule has been a period of internecine warfare among rival factions, resulting in the isolation of moderates in the party and rise of radical conservative, ultranationalist elements. The country has had five prime ministers in eight years since Prime Minister David Cameron (now back as Foreign Secretary in Sunak’s government) resigned after being defeated in the June 2016 referendum he called on whether Britain should remain in the European Union. At the time, Sunak, a new entrant, was a young, ambitious politician, eager to climb up.

Sunak exudes confidence whatever the public perceptions of him. Just as in the world of finance, his rise in politics has been meteoric. Elected as a Member of Parliament in 2015, a junior minister three years later, Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) in 2020, and Prime Minister in 2022. Few public figures are so privileged and fortunate. However, the current political climate indicates that Sunak’s time as party leader and prime minister may be coming to an end. So why he called a general election nearly six months before the end of the five-year term of Parliament is a question observers are asking.

Several reasons may have been responsible. For more than a year, with the steady weight of the opposition Labour Party’s lead of around 20 percent, Sunak and his close advisors probably thought that the situation could only get worse in the coming months. The most recent economic figures suggest that the country has come out of recession, and the high rate of inflation has dropped, with the worldwide energy prices coming down. Sunak hopes to capitalize on these. The extreme right-wing MPs in his party were constantly threatening to bring a no-confidence motion in his leadership – something which forced Sunak to make increasingly bizarre policy announcements which were in violation of national and international law, or so impractical that their enforcement seemed impossible.

The most controversial, and in a clear violation of humanitarian law under the 1951 Refugee Convention, was Sunak’s move to expel asylum-seekers (potential refugees) arriving by small boats on British shores to the African country of Rwanda, where a genocide was committed in 1994. As many as 800,000 people, mainly ethnic Tutsis, were slaughtered. For decades, Rwanda has been ruled by Paul Kagame – once a military officer and commander of a rebel group called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (PDF) which invaded that country in 1990. In an attempt to shore up his support among anti-immigration and ultra-nationalist voters, and groups such as the Reform Party, Sunak decided to declare Rwanda a “safe country” in law. To achieve this, the Prime Minister brazenly used his massive majority in Parliament to pass a bill designating Rwanda a “safe country,” where asylum-seekers arriving in Britain would be deported. Asylum-seekers whose claims were approved by UK officials based in Rwanda would be settled in that country, not in Britain.

For months, Sunak pledged to deport people he described as “illegal immigrants” to Rwanda. This despite the fact that the UK Supreme Court, in November 2023, ruled that people sent to that country would be open to human rights abuses, so the UK government’s policy was unlawful. Earlier, in September 2022, the UN Refugee Agency said that Rwanda was “not a safe third country,” and the policy must not be implemented. Refugee organizations also protested. Regardless, Sunak went ahead with legislation, arguing that Parliament was sovereign, and therefore no law passed by MPs could be challenged in courts. His bill faced strong opposition in the House of Lords, the upper house, which repeatedly sent it back to the elected House of Commons for revision. However, according to the UK’s constitutional convention, the Commons overrode the Lords’ objections every time, and the legislation finally passed.

Now, Sunak says that planes carrying “illegal immigrants” would leave after the general election. But it all depends on whether he can lead his party to victory again. The opposition Labour Party leader, Kier Starmer, has said that, should his party win, he would scrap the Rwanda scheme “straightaway.” As for Prime Minister Sunak’s Conservative Party, nearly 80 MPs have already announced that they would not be standing for re-election, and the number is rising, mostly fearing defeat. Some of the government’s flagship policies have been dropped. The discontent with Sunak among Conservative MPs is widespread, aggravated by his decision to call the election six months before time, for they are likely to lose their jobs and privileges sooner.

Deepak Tripathi, PhD, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He blogs at Reflections. Among his latest books are Modern Populism: Weaponizing for Power and Influence (Springer Nature, September 2023) and Afghanistan and the Vietnam Syndrome: Comparing US and Soviet Wars (also Springer Nature, March 2023).