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World

UK election called for 4 July – what happens next?

todayMay 24, 2024 10

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Situation vacant?
Nikonpete/Shutterstock

 

 

By Christopher Kirkland, York St John University

 

 

On a rainy afternoon in London, an increasingly damp Rishi Sunak confirmed what many had been speculating for most of the day in a speech outside 10 Downing Street – that the UK is heading for an election earlier than anticipated. Here’s what to expect in the weeks ahead.

When is the UK having an election?

Election day has been confirmed for 4 July – in just over six weeks’ time.

The UK has to have an election at least every five years but elections can be called at any time within that timeframe. Sunak had to hold a vote before the end of January 2025 but, until this surprise announcement, the country had largely expected an autumn date.

Sunak always said the vote would be in the second half of the year (which July technically is). But it still came as a shock that the vote has been called so early. Many of his own MPs are said to be annoyed at the prospect.

Why is Sunak calling the election now?

Sunak’s speech rested on the argument that only he and the Conservative party can lead Britain through the “most challenging” time since the end of the second world war. This is a dangerous argument, as Labour will point to the fact that many of the underlying problems, such as the state of public services and the economic turmoil caused by Liz Truss’s mini budget, have been created under (and even by) the Conservative government.

Sunak set the date as soon as it was confirmed that inflation is easing, which is a much needed piece of good news for his government. He may also have planned to surprise Labour, having learned that the opposition was allowing staff to take holidays over the summer, thinking there would not be an election until after the summer recess.

Is the campaign always so short?

“Short campaigns” – the period between the day the election is called and election day itself, are very short in the UK compared to many other countries. They last a minimum of 25 working days and are rarely much longer.

The long campaign, however, is the period of time when parties have a sense that an election is imminent. Given that Sunak was working towards the end of the five-year deadline, the long campaign has been running for some time. All of the UK’s political parties have been preparing and they will, or at least should be, largely campaign-ready, even if this all feels sudden to the rest of us.

What was the song playing as Sunak announced the date?

Sunak’s speech was at times almost entirely drowned out by a protester playing very loud music at the gates of Downing Street. This was D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better – a song which British people associate with Tony Blair’s campaign in 1997, when Labour won by a landslide.

Things Can Only Get Better: a song strongly associated with Labour’s 1997 election win.

What happens next?

Sunak has already spoken to king Charles to ask for permission to dissolve parliament. This will happen on May 30. After that point, technically, there are no MPs (all incumbents who decide to stand become candidates, rather than MPs). Any parliamentary business that has not been completed before that day will be scrapped.

MPs will then start campaigning across the UK’s 650 constituencies, hoping to win a parliamentary seat. This traditionally includes door-to-door canvassing. Some will also feature in the national campaign, especially those who are also government ministers. Party leaders will engage in the national campaign and dip in and out of local campaigns when it is opportune for them to do so – such as in key battleground areas. TV debates have been a feature of British politics since 2010 and the broadcasters will now be negotiating how many of those will take place, who will be included and when they should be aired.

Will there be a change of government?

While the last few years has taught us all to never say never in British politics, polls give the Labour party a commanding lead over the incumbent Conservative party, pointing to a change of government.

In this scenario, Labour leader Starmer would become prime minister. Any other result would be presented as a major polling failure.

The Conservative government has been in power since 2010, though this also includes a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats between 2010 and 2015. David Cameron then led a Conservative government without the Liberal Democrats between 2015 and 2016, when he resigned in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Since then, the UK has had four prime ministers – Theresa May (2016-2019), Boris Johnson (2019-2022), Truss (for 49 days in 2022) and Sunak (since October 2022). Sunak will attempt to argue that this makes him still relatively “new”, all the while emphasising that he warned that Truss’s tax plans were a mistake.

Do all parts of the UK vote?

Yes – voters in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales will vote in the UK election. Although there are devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and major urban areas of England) each of these areas, along with the rest of England, also elect MPs to sit in the Westminster parliament.

Stephen Flynn standing in parliament in front of benches of Scottish National Party MPs.
Stephen Flynn is the Scottish National Party’s leader in Westminster.
Flickr/UK Parliament, CC BY-NC-ND

However, Labour does not stand candidates in Northern Ireland and if any Sinn Féin candidates win seats in Northern Ireland, they traditionally do not take their seats in Westminster.

When would a new prime minister be installed?

When an election result is a clear majority, the leader of the winning party starts as prime minister immediately after the result is confirmed – so there is no transition period, as in the case of the US for example. If there is a change of prime minister, the incumbent must leave Downing Street immediately and their replacement will arrive soon after. British politics is brutal in this respect.

Technically the prime minister is appointed by the monarch, so the election winner’s first act is to visit the king.

However, this assumes the result is clear. In 2010, when no party won a majority of seats, Gordon Brown remained prime minister for five days after the election while trying (and ultimately failing) to broker a coalition agreement.

Why do some people think this is all about football?

Holding an election on 4 July puts the vote right in the middle of the UEFA European football championships, leading some to speculate that Sunak is hoping to capitalise on a positive national mood to turn his fortunes around. Whether that is a realistic hope will become apparent sooner rather than later, but Sunak must know it is a gamble. The last time a general election was called during an international football tournament was in 1970. Harold Wilson’s Labour lost four days after the reigning champions, England, were beaten by West Germany in the World Cup quarter-finals.The Conversation

Christopher Kirkland, Senior Lecturer in Politics, York St John University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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