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British voters have enough of conservative rule — they’re moving to the left

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British voters have enough of conservative rule — they’re moving to the left

Jun 03, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Diane Roberts
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British voters have enough of conservative rule — they’re moving to the left
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HONITON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 29: UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sits in an armored vehicle at Supacat Ltd. during a Conservative Party general election campaign event on May 29, 2024, in Honiton, England. (Photo by Alastair Grant - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

LONDON — There he was, Rishi Sunak, graduate of Oxford and Stanford, millionaire, prime minister of the United Kingdom, standing in a downpour outside 10 Downing Street, trying to sound upbeat as he announced there’s to be a national election on July 4.

Sunak, trailing Labour by more than 20% in the polls, promised “bold action.”

His first bold action should have been grabbing an umbrella, but none was forthcoming. The nation watched in fascinated horror as water dripped off his nose and rain made “snail trails” on his expensive suit.

Y’all, I’ve seen some weird British elections. There was that time in 2001 when the deputy prime minister, out trying to win votes, punched a constituent who threatened him with an egg.

There was that time in 1983 — I was a student then — when Labour leader Michael Foot failed to read the room and pledged unilateral nuclear disarmament and re-nationalization of industries in a 39-page manifesto referred to as “the longest suicide note in history.”

British voters have enough of conservative rule — they’re moving to the left
President Ronald Reagan with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on Dec. 22, 1984. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Foot and Labour lost in a landslide to Margaret Thatcher.

But I’ve never seen a campaign as inept and pitiful as this one.

One of Rishi Sunak ‘s first stops on the stump was Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, mere yards away from where the “unsinkable” liner was built.

The jokes write themselves.

Eyeing the iceberg ahead, 78 Tory MPs, doing their best rat imitations, have jumped ship, choosing not to be candidates for their party.

They include former prime minister Theresa May, former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, and 20 former cabinet members.

Most people thought the election would be in the fall. British prime ministers get to call an election whenever they want, up to the end of their five-year terms.

Conservatives keep using words like “blind-sided” and “gobsmacked.”

Not ready

Somehow, one member of Sunak’s government managed a moment of cheerleading.

Housing minister Michael Gove quoted the motto of Britain’s elite SAS regiment, “Who Dares Wins,” telling Sunak, “You dared — and you will win.”

Michael Gove, however, does not dare and he will not win: He’s decided not to run for re-election.

Most Conservative politicians, though, are grumbling. Why not wait ’till October or November?

The economy is sluggish, the government has dumped its once-praised climate change plans, abandoned its signature immigration policy, the widely ridiculed and probably illegal plan to ship asylum seekers to Rwanda, and, with chronic underfunding, pushed the NHS to the edge of collapse.

Not that anyone seriously thinks things will get much better by October or November.

In any case, the Tories aren’t ready: They need time to line up gainful employment post-electoral bloodbath.

Sunak, however, is ready — or maybe just resigned to his fate.

He knows he’s likely to go down in history as the Tory leader whose chaotic, cack-handed, often downright dumb administration got beaten like a rented mule.

Not that they rent mules in this country, but you know what I mean.

Rumor has it Sunak would really rather go back to his old life as a hedge fund manager/tech bro in California.

In addition to a Georgian manor with a pool, tennis courts, and a gym he owns in Yorkshire, he also has a $7.2 million home in Santa Monica.

It’s not that the guy has to work, either: He and his wife are worth $830 million.

They’re richer than the king.

But for the time being, Sunak’s grimly pursuing his doomed campaign, slipping daily on political banana peels.

Awkward silence

He visited a brewery in Wales and cheerfully asked staff if they were looking forward to their national team playing in the Euro 24 football tournament.

British voters have enough of conservative rule — they’re moving to the left
GREENOCK, SCOTLAND – MAY 31: Leader of the Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer speaks during the launch of the Labour party’s ‘six steps to change Scotland’ pledges on May 31, 2024, in Greenock, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

There followed what the BBC described as “an awkward silence” before somebody pointed out the Welsh did not actually qualify.

At a stop in Birmingham, Sunak allowed himself to be photographed under an “Exit” sign.

When he visited a biscuit distribution factory, he proceeded to patronize the 20-odd workers who’d been herded into a large room and invited them to ask him anything.

Several raised their hands, lobbing him questions about as hard as your average marshmallow.

The questioners turned out to be Conservative Party plants.

Does this guy have a death wish?

It’s not like the Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer is on fire with passion and brilliance.

Starmer is a distinguished barrister, a former prosecutor, a steady, unflashy dude.

In other words, he’s quite boring.

Of course, people might be craving a dull, yet competent, government.

Head of lettuce

The British appear to be fed up with 14 years of Tory misrule: David Cameron’s Old Etonian regime, packed with posh boys, imposed fiscal “austerity” measures on everyone else, especially the NHS.

Then there was PM Theresa May, who denied citizenship to the Caribbeans invited by the “Mother Country” to come and work after World War II and deported a lot of 70-somethings who thought they were British.

British voters have enough of conservative rule — they’re moving to the left
Boris Johnson. Credit: Office of U.S. National Security Adviser

How about that Boris Johnson, the serial liar who threw parties during COVID, and Liz Truss, the prime minister who, despite her remarkably short stay in 10 Downing Street, did her best to crash the financial markets and was compared — unfavorably — to a head of lettuce?

The lettuce lasted longer than she did.

Now the British are led by a rich guy who was once stumped by a contactless credit card and takes a helicopter or a private jet just about everywhere he goes.

This country is suffering a slew of problems: lack of opportunity for young people, a critical shortage of affordable housing, inequality, and severe effects of climate change.

Private water companies keep discharging sewage into Britain’s rivers while demanding huge increases in people’s bills to upgrade their infrastructure, even as they pay obscene dividends to shareholders.

Schools are chronically starved of money, doctors are still striking for decent pay, and the prisons are so overcrowded the government is considering releasing some of the less scary offenders back into society.

A couple of weeks ago, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden freaked Britons out when he exhorted them to stock up on “tinned food and water” in case of emergency, if some disaster was imminent.

And the Tories wonder why they’re losing?

Not exactly excited

In 1997, I was teaching in Oxford as Conservatives found themselves sinking under the weight of what the newspapers called “Tory Sleaze.”

That was back when they claimed to embrace “responsibility, decency, and family values.”

MPs were caught taking bribes, lying, and sleeping with teenaged girls. A married junior minister admitted to having simultaneous affairs with three different women; a cabinet member who’d ranted against single mothers had to admit he’d fathered a child out of wedlock.

Between the financial improprieties and the sexual hypocrisy, the nation had had enough. The young, quasi-cool, and (then) squeaky clean Tony Blair won the election with a huge majority in Parliament.

On election night a friend of mine, a party activist, threw a dinner at which all the food was red (Labour’s color): Bloody Mary aspic, rare beef, roasted beets, red velvet cake. We drank a lot of red wine, toasting the nation’s return to progressive values.

But this isn’t 1997; Starmer isn’t Blair; Labour is no longer a socialist party.

Sure, Starmer calls himself a socialist, a man of the left, but his proposed policies are hardly revolutionary.

Labour will dump the Conservatives’ failed send-them-to-Rwanda immigration plans, but leaders haven’t said what they’ll do instead; they plan to grow the economy to better fund starved social services and schools, but they’re not keen on new taxes — even on the rich.

In fact, a lot of what they espouse is strangely similar to what the Tories are doing now, though without the overt xenophobia and wholesale coddling of the wealthy.

People aren’t exactly excited.

Left in limbo

Worse, some natural Labour voters are furious about leadership’s treatment of Diane Abbott, the first black woman elected to Parliament.

A fiery London left-winger, Abbott was suspended from the party more than a year ago, pending an investigation into comments she made suggesting Jews do not suffer the same prejudice as black people.

She apologized but was still left in limbo.

Disrespecting a Black woman isn’t a good look in a party that remains really, really white.

The party has finally announced that, yes, OK, Diane Abbot can stand as a candidate for Labour. And can everybody now please shut up about it?

This fight was unnecessary and messy. Starmer handled it awkwardly.

Nevertheless, Labour is still on track to win and, while Starmer could use a charisma injection, his main qualification is not being Rishi Sunak.

For his part, Sunak would insist you not count him out just yet: He’s recently made a bold course correction — the acquisition of an umbrella.

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