The countdown to the next UK general election has begun

  • Dr. Yossi Mekelberg
    Professor of International Relations and Senior Consulting at Chatham House UK, and Professor International Relations at Regent’s University
National Policies

The countdown to the next UK general election has begun

Even for a country as rich in history as the United Kingdom, the last few years have been extremely eventful. Back in September 2022, the much loved and longest serving monarch in the Kingdom’s history, Queen Elizabeth II, passed away. For many, she represented an idea of continuity and stability that had often been lacking in the country’s political and social spheres. Despite the fact that the British monarch has very limited powers, her passing was seen as the end of an era, which might call for changes in the role and nature of the monarchy, maybe radical ones.[1] Much depends on how King Charles III, who has succeeded his mother, will handle the transition, and whether he will gain even some of the rapport she had with the people.

Another enduring aspect of British life is the obsession with relations with Europe, which has been part of the social-political discourse since long before the 2016 referendum, even with increased intensity in the aftermath of the unexpected victory of the Leave campaign. It took seven years, two general elections, and five Conservative prime ministers in this short space of time to seemingly “get Brexit done”, but the issue is far from being settled, whether it is on the issue of immigration or preventing the Northern Ireland peace agreement from collapsing.[2] Instead of British politics entering a more stable phase after leaving the EU, it has entered a frenzied period, much of it caused by deep divisions in the Conservative party, the lingering inability to resolve the inherent contradictions between the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement and the Brexit agreement, a cost of living crisis which is spiralling out of control, and the general fatigue of 13 years of an increasingly, not without evidence, incompetent Conservative government that has run out of ideas and is incapable of dealing with the crises in the UK’s social, political and economic spheres.

In principle the Conservatives’ decisive 2019 general election victory should have brought with it a period of at least certainty, if not stability, as the party led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a healthy majority in Parliament that should have allowed him to govern for a full five-year term.[3] But that expectation failed to take into account the premiership style of Johnson, whose character flaws came to outweigh his electoral appeal, resulting in his political demise last summer for several reasons, perhaps the most notorious being his constant partying during the Covid-19 pandemic while the rest of the country was in lockdown and his subsequent failed attempts to lie his way out of taking the blame for this.[4]

Following Johnson’s departure, events were as frenzied as unexpected, culminating in the brief, chaotic and damaging premiership of Liz Truss, which lasted for a record-breaking 49 days, during which she committed the ultimate sin of letting an extreme free market–low tax ideology and inexplicable stubbornness guide her decisions at the expense of evidence-based procedure and common sense, which led to her budget instantly crashing the UK’s economy even as it was being announced in Parliament.[5] Her budget was simply jaw-dropping in terms of the pace and brutality of the changes introduced, which included £45 billion in unfunded tax cuts for the rich, eliminating the top 45% income altogether,[6] and abolishing the increase in tax rates on dividends, particularly by a prime minister who had no public mandate for her actions and had been elected only by her own party’s membership. After Truss was forced to resign, a similar electoral process opened the door to 10 Downing Street to the current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, who was elected unopposed by his party’s MPs despite having been previously rejected by the party’s membership, who had preferred Truss over Sunak. In a single vote, Conservative MPs demonstrated their lack of judgement and compromised the credibility of Sunak to lead the country.

Thus, it now looks inevitable that come the next general election, Labour will win, and will win big. Voters are desperate for change, and all they keep being given is a Conservative Party that keeps changing its leaders, yet with each one only further demonstrating its incompetent attempts to deal with the issues which matter most to the country. This leaves the strong sense that after 13 years of Conservative government, the country is moving backwards instead of progressing. What stands between the people and their renewed hope for change is the date of the next general election, which is not due until December 2024, unless the Conservatives choose to hold it before then.

Undeniably, the current political, economic, and social crisis that the UK is experiencing has several causes, many of them being the government’s own policies, along with external factors, as well as inherent structural and perceptual flaws.[7] Recent years have witnessed nation-changing events, first and foremost the debacle of Brexit whose full impact is yet to be felt. There is already sufficient evidence to demonstrate that whatever Johnson, Farage and co. promised had, right from the outset, no chance of ever materialising as it was based on populist, utterly invented economics, with no facts to support their promises. And while the damage of leaving the EU is all too obvious, any benefits that might eventually reveal themselves remain elusive for now, and the promised queue of countries longing to sign trade agreements with a UK free of Brussels’ chains has yet to materialise, and probably never will. When President Obama said that Brexit would put the UK at the “back of the queue” for trade talks, he knew exactly what he was talking about.[8] And it comes as no surprise that current polling shows that most Brits, by quite a margin, regret Brexit.[9]

Were Brexit the only big event of recent years, it still would have been a defining moment for the country’s history, for how it perceives itself as a nation, and for its relations with immediate neighbours and the rest of the world. However, as the UK was struggling to find a way to leave the EU and yet remain economically viable and a force to reckon with on the world stage, it also faced the perfect storm of the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by Russia’s war in Ukraine, both of which exacerbated an already existing cost of living crisis.

Conveniently, and disingenuously, one Tory prime minister after another has been blaming the pandemic and the war in Ukraine for all the ills of the British economy, but a closer look at some economic figures reveals that other high-income economies that had to face similar consequences of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine are faring much better than the UK, which suggests that there are intrinsic weaknesses in the UK’s political, economic, and social structures that make it more vulnerable to unexpected events, including weak governing bodies and inadequate supply chains.

The ever-rising cost of living is hitting hard millions of people, and not only in the UK, yet while inflation in the Eurozone, according to the latest figures, stands at 6.9 per cent and in the US is just under 5 per cent, in the UK it is persistently at a two-digit level and currently just above 10 per cent.[10] A breakdown of these figures shows that the prices of basic commodities such as bread, milk, eggs, and fresh fruit and vegetables are rising exponentially, and as the Bank of England keeps raising interest rates, it adds to the cost of mortgages for millions of families and causes rents to rise for millions of others. While the well-off have the financial mechanisms to protect themselves from these extreme fluctuations, it is low-income families who suffer most. This means that in one of the richest economies in the world, hundreds of thousands of people are forced to rely on food banks, with many children dependent on free school meals to enjoy a single hot meal a day.[11] There is no definite figure for the cost of Brexit to the UK economy, but according to a report by Bloomberg it is in the region of £100 billion a year, and as a result the economy is 4 per cent smaller than it might have been if the UK had remained in the EU.[12] To add to this bleak reality, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts the UK economy will shrink this year while every other major economy is expected to grow.

If a general election were to be held today, Labour would win it decisively. Opinion polls consistently show it has a 23-point lead over the Tories, a lead that equates to a huge majority in Parliament. Labour, more than for a very long time, presents a leader and front bench that the public trust with the future of the country. They are still coy about revealing their hand when it comes to detailed and costed policies, but what they are ready to share is increasingly believable and trusted. Approval of the current government, according to pollsters YouGov, has plummeted to 17 per cent, while 64 per cent disapprove of Sunak and his colleagues in government.[13] There is also further good news for Keir Starmer and his Labour party, as it has emerged that for the first time in a long time, public support for Labour is no longer merely a protest against the Tories, and that Labour is now perceived as a government in waiting.

This development also creates a genuine dilemma for Labour, which must decide on the right time to show its hand and come up with a comprehensive, costed and credible manifesto that will be capable of reversing the country’s fortunes. Tactically, it might make sense to publish it as close as possible to the date of the election. But, for the first time since Labour’s famous election victory in 1997, it is not only the case that the Conservatives are on the ropes, divided and with little credibility beyond their core supporters; they also have a demonstrably weak leadership, and no plan for changing the country’s fortunes or getting out of the deep electoral hole they have dug for themselves. These factors should enable Labour and its front bench to test the readiness of the public for a more progressive social-democratic agenda, one fit for the 21st century.

What may cause the most damage to the Conservative party is that although it has always claimed and has often been perceived to be the party that is best at running the economy, it is no longer seen as such by most of the voters. After more than a decade in power, economic growth is sluggish at best, and figures show that since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, the average Briton is nearly £4,000 p.a. worse off. Growth figures are especially staggering in comparison to other OECD countries that over this period have grown by 24 per cent, while the UK is lagging way behind on 11 per cent.[14] As a result of the constant rise in the cost of living, many public sector operatives – including health, education and transport workers – have been taking industrial action, which has piled up the misery on ordinary citizens. However, unlike previous occasions when the government and its client media have been able to turn the public against those taking strike action, this time there is general support and sympathy for them, and the public are rightly blaming the government instead for its lack of response and refusal to dialogue with public service unions in particular. There is a realisation that not only are there growing disparities in society, but also that those who are rewarded financially are not necessarily those who are contributing to making the society a better one.

Another area of growing contention is that the union of England, Scotland, and Wales – the United Kingdom – is also at risk while the problematic relations between the three nations are left unaddressed. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum, which was won by those who opposed leaving the UK, seemed to put the issue to rest, but Brexit has brought dissolution back on the table as, at the time, this was one of the incentives for voters to support remaining part of the UK. Similarly, despite recent confirmation of the agreement with the EU over trade with Northern Ireland, it was Brexit that opened this Pandora’s box, and it is uncertain if it can be closed once again.

For Sunak, much of his work consists of holding the fort and doing his utmost to limit the damage come next year’s general election. Nevertheless, because of the circumstances of his ascendence to power, which was completely within the rules, but considering the circumstances of his predecessor’s departure extremely questionable, the task of leading the party as well as the country is almost impossible.[15] Considering also his vast wealth, being a prime minister at a time of extreme austerity for most, and one who lacks the common touch and any obvious sympathy for ordinary people (he has even boasted of diverting government funds from poor areas to wealthy areas), makes it even harder to forge any kind of rapport with the public. Add to this the fact that three members of his cabinet have already been sacked or forced to resign due to bullying their staff or concealing their financial affairs, and the picture of a dishonest and dysfunctional government beyond repair becomes even clearer.

It would take a Herculean effort by this government to transform the public perception of its performance, and a major mishap by Labour to lose the lead it has in the polls and be prevented from marching into government with a big majority. Nevertheless, the task for both parties is to present a post-Brexit and post-pandemic vision of the UK at home and abroad, to build public services and infrastructure fit for the 21st century, to prevent the UK from disintegrating, and to move on from being a society where social mobility is still defined by birth and postcode. As things stand now, it will take another election for this to happen and not before.

[1] Robert Hazell, “Future Challenges for the Monarchy,” Institute for Government, December 13, 2022,

[2] Tom Edgington and Tamara Kovacevic, “Brexit: What Are the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework?” BBC News, April 12, 2023,

[3] “Victory for Boris Johnson’s All-New Tories,” The Economist, December 13, 2019,

[4] “Partygate: A Timeline of the Lockdown Parties,” BBC News, March 21, 2023,

[5] Eshe Nelson, “After a Storm, Britain’s Economy Finds Itself Rudderless,” New York Times, October 21, 2022,

[6] Peter Walker and Virginia Harrison, “Liz Truss Abandons Plan to Scrap 45p Top Rate of Income Tax amid Tory Revolt,” The Guardian, October 3, 2022,

[7] OECD, “United Kingdom: Accelerate Structural Reforms to Keep Recovery on Track,” August 3, 2022,

[8] Doug Palmar, “Obama: Brexit Would Move U.K. to the ‘Back of the Queue’ on U.S. Trade Deals,” Politico, April 22, 2016,

[9] Heather Stewart, “As Leave Voters’ Brexit Regret Rises, Will Political Parties Dare to Follow?” The Guardian, January 13, 2023,

[10] Richard Partington, “Why Does the UK Have Highest inflation in G7 and Is Brexit a Factor?” The Guardian, March 22, 2023,

[11] The Trussle Trust, State of Hunger: Building the Evidence on Poverty, Destitution, and Food Insecurity in the UK, May 2021,

[12] Andrew Atkinson, “Brexit Is Costing the UK £100 Billion a Year in Lost Output,” Bloomberg, January 31, 2023,

[13] Keiran Pedley, Gideon Skinner, Cameron Garrett et. al., Rishi Sunak’s Personal Poll Ratings Improve but Labour Retain Strong Lead in Voting Intention, IPSOS Political Monitor, March 2023,

[14] OECD, “United Kingdom Economic Snapshot,”

[15] Alan Greene, “Does Rishi Sunak Need to Call a General Election?” University of Birmingham News, October 26, 2022,

: 31-July-2023

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