Their leaders are as uninspiring as each other

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak walked a few steps to a lectern outside his official residence at 10 Downing Street in London last Wednesday to announce that he was calling an early general election for July 4, 2024.

The lectern did not show the UK government insignia which was a clear sign that his announcement was not government business. Calling a general election is party not government business so the UK government insignia of the crown attended by the lion and the unicorn, is inappropriate. Parliament was dissolved within days and the country is governed by the executive without a functioning parliament until a new one is elected. Members of Parliament lose their suffix and only a few pieces of legislation in the pipeline survive.

As soon as Sunak began telling the country that he had seen the king and asked and granted a dissolution of parliament and a general election, the heavens opened, and he was drenched. There was no umbrella in sight, and he did not do the obvious thing to interrupt himself and start again under an umbrella. 

He preferred to do a Churchill. The great man was once addressing a crowd in the rain when someone at the back whose view of Churchill was blocked by umbrellas, shouted: “I cannot see Mr Churchill.” Churchill, ready witted as always, growled in his whiskey voice “does anyone mind the rain?” Some probably did mind, but Churchill had guilt-tripped them to close their umbrellas against their better judgement. If memory serves, the story was told by the late Robin Day, who later became BBC TV’s grand inquisitor of politicians and who witnessed the occasion with his father in his boyhood.

Rishi Sunak also carried on regardless despite the rain, except that as he turned round to head back into No 10, his expensive suit soaking wet, he looked as though his took a chance on the British weather and lost – which does not augur well for the chance he has also taken with the British electorate. It was very odd that no helping umbrella was offered from all the staffers inside Number 10 behind him who must have had umbrellas ready to hand.

And as if the drenching were not bad enough, someone started playing loud pop music that drowned out the PM’s statement and he had to raise his voice above it. Whoever it was caused a public nuisance that interfered with democracy – the prime minister’s announcement of a general election, no less.  

It was not an auspicious start to Sunak’s election gamble. The Conservatives lag 20 percentage points behind Labour and the pundits have various theories why Sunak called a general election early thereby depriving his party of the chance of improvement in the polls. The best explanation for what seems a strange decision is that Sunak figured the Conservative party would not lose so badly now than if he carried on to a point where there was a real danger the party itself could be wiped out.

The sense in the country among Conservative voters is that the party needs a spell in opposition to refresh itself and there is no better way to do this than with the present Labour leadership who will govern in much the same way as Sunak, while the real Conservatives go on sabbatical for five years.

When the Labour government of Gordon Brown was ousted from power in 2010 the outgoing finance minister, Liam Byrne, left a note for his successor saying: “there is no money.” Sunak and his finance minister would do no such thing if they lose. Liam Byrne subsequently explained that it was an old finance ministry tradition which on reflection was a mistake as it confirmed the middle-class view that Labour lacked financial discipline. Like Gordon Brown before her, the present shadow finance minister, Rachel Reeves, will stick with the financial discipline of the present government if Labour win so as not to scare the markets on taking office a la Liz Truss a couple of years ago.

The Conservatives have not been in power for 14 years as their detractors contend. They formed a coalition government in 2010 with the Liberal Democrats under David Cameron as prime minister and Nick Clegg as his deputy. It worked well – much better than the Conservative governments that followed after David Cameron won an overall majority in 2015.

The odd thing about Cameron was that although he was happy running a coalition government, he was worried about the threat to the Conservative Party from the populist right of Nigel Farage and his United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – now Reform UK – that campaigned for Britain to leave the EU. As Reform UK they are said to pose a similar threat to the Conservatives in 2024 that proves the old French adage that the more things change the more they stay the same.

To neutralise UKIP’s appeal Cameron made a manifesto promise in May 2015 election to hold an in-out referendum on UK membership of the EU and won a smallish overall majority – mostly at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. He kept his promise and held an in-out referendum thinking people would vote remain – like the Scots voted to remain part of the UK in 2014. It did not work, and he was forced to resign as he had backed Remain and the country voted Leave. He was succeeded by Theresa May who could not deliver Brexit and she was succeeded by Boris Johnson who could and did get it done but who then blew his premiership as he was unfit to rule during the Covid pandemic – as one of his close advisers put it, managing a pandemic was beyond his skills set. He was ousted for telling porkies and was succeeded by Liz Truss who had no set of skills at all and nearly crashed the economy.

Sunak was then elected leader of his party and PM unopposed to rescue the economy from the perilous state left by Truss but his set of skills do not go beyond those of a safe pair of hands at the ministry of finance.

He lacks what the first president George Bush called the ‘vision thing’. Basically, he is not cut out to be prime minister but then neither is the Labour leader Keir Starmer. They are as uninspiring as each other.

Alper Ali Riza is a king’s counsel in the UK and a retired part time judge