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In the run-up to elections in the UK, people say they're ready for a change

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A new round of elections are coming in the United Kingdom after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that the British Parliament would soon dissolve and that his Conservative Party would face off against its political rivals for the right to remain in power. As Willem Marx reports, the campaigning began almost immediately in an attempt to win over voters seemingly disenchanted with the U.K.'s current political climate.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: When Rishi Sunak entered Downing Street in October 2022, he became the fourth Conservative Party prime minister in less than four years and the second successive leader to take power without a popular vote. With his party currently 20 points behind its labor rivals in national polls and only weeks after a trouncing in Britain's local elections, Sunak's decision to call a national vote prompted questions among politicians and ordinary people like Annemieke van Rhijn.

ANNEMIEKE VAN RHIJN: I wonder what was going through his head when he decided to call this. We've just had the local elections. We all saw what happened there. I wonder if he's thinking, if I do this now, I can control it. If I leave it longer, I might get to a point where I can no longer - like, my party is really going to start crumbling.

MARX: For some voters, Sunak's party has presided over a catastrophic period for public services. And a chance to push them from power can't come soon enough for coffee shop worker Kitty McMurray.

KITTY MCMURRAY: Everything's falling apart. Schools don't work. Kids can't get taught. So yeah, bring it on, can't wait.

MARX: Security service engineer Tony Westgarth agrees.

TONY WESTGARTH: I'm quite happy for looking for change because I've had it with the conservatives, basically.

MARX: Nonetheless, Sunak spent the first day of the campaign visiting all four corners of the U.K. - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland...

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PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: Effectively, sugar gets converted into alcohol and CO2.

MARX: ...Defending his personal performance as premier at every opportunity, including to broadcaster The BBC.

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SUNAK: People can judge me by my record. I have been prepared time and time again to do what I think is right for our country even when it's difficult, right? That requires ability to take bold action. It requires an ability to stick to a plan even when it's tough.

MARX: Sunak says he offers British voters certainty and security. And, since the country's economy tanked in late 2022 under his predecessor Liz Truss, he has at least stabilized the situation somewhat. But with the nationalized health service in seemingly permanent crisis and government debt at the highest level in half a century, even then, Sunak's concept of success remains a hard sell.

One of his five major promises after taking office was to end the dangerous dinghy crossings that tens of thousands of migrants have made from Northern France to Southern England. His party's plan has been to develop a deterrent by deporting people on planes to Rwanda, for their asylum claims to be heard thousands of miles away in East Africa. Sunak this week acknowledged it won't happen before the election, but he's still using this intended program as part of his pitch.

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SUNAK: We've started detaining people. I can tell you the flights are booked for July, airfields on standby, the escorts are ready, the caseworkers are churning through everything. So all that is happening, and if I'm reelected as your Prime Minister, those flights will go to Rwanda. We will get that deterrent up and running.

MARX: But despite the quarter of a billion dollars already spent, the monthslong legal battles and the repeated rounds of legislation to support this policy, he's so far failed, to borrow his own slogan, to stop the boats.

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KEIR STARMER: Is he looking forward to all the football?

MARX: At a soccer stadium southeast of London, his opponent, labor leader Keir Starmer, tried out his own campaign slogan that seemed to poke fun at Sunak's failure, saying he and his party planned to stop the chaos.

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STARMER: And if you vote labor, it's a vote to stop the chaos. It's a vote to turn the page. And it's a vote to rebuild our country together.

(CHEERING)

MARX: The approach labor seems to be promising involves competence, sure, but also a repudiation of Margaret Thatcher-era trickle-down economics through low taxation.

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STARMER: We totally reject the Tory view that economic strength is somehow gifted from those at the top. Over the past 14 years, through all the crisis we've had to face, sticking with that idea has left our country exposed, insecure and unable to unlock the potential of every community.

MARX: The reality is that whichever party ends up in power come this summer, their financial options will hardly be fantastic. Britain's business growth and labor productivity over the past five years have fallen far behind its peers with a population that's aging and thus sickening alongside spending requirements across government in defense, health care, and social welfare that are set to soar. Economic experts say no amount of political sloganeering can or will solve such complicated problems. For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]