A UK election has been called for July 4. Here's what to know

The United Kingdom’s first national election in five years is shaping up as a battle for the country’s soul, with some saying it poses an existential threat to the governing Conservative Party, which has been in power since 2010.

The center-right Conservatives took power during the depths of the global financial crisis and have won two more elections since then. But those years have been filled with challenges and controversies, making the Tories, as they are commonly known, easy targets for critics on the left and right.

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The Labour Party, which leans to the left, faces its own challenges in shaking off a reputation for irresponsible spending and proving that it has a plan to govern.

Both parties are being ripped apart by the conflict in the Middle East, with the Tories facing charges of Islamophobia and Labour struggling to distance itself from antisemitism that festered under former leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Here is a look at the upcoming election and the biggest issues at stake.

When will the next U.K. election be?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak set July 4 as the date for the election, months ahead of when it was expected. He had until December to call an election that could have happened as late as Jan. 28, 2025.

Britain-Israel

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addresses the media at Downing Street in London, on March 1, 2024. Sunak on Wednesday announced that the national election will be held on July 4.

How long is a political term in the U.K.?

Elections in the U.K. have to be held no more than five years apart. But the timing of the vote is determined by the prime minister’s calculation of the date most advantageous to the ruling party. Sunak had been expected to call the vote in the autumn, when a number of economic factors were expected to have improved their chances, according to the Institute for Government, a London-based think tank.

But favorable economic news on Wednesday, with inflation down to 2.3%, changed the narrative.

How does voting work?

People throughout the United Kingdom will choose all 650 members of the House of Commons for a term of up to five years. The party that commands a majority in the Commons, either alone or in coalition, will form the next government and its leader will be prime minister.

That means the results will determine the political direction of the government, which has been led by the center-right Conservatives for the past 14 years. The center-left Labour Party is widely seen to be in the strongest position.

Who is running?

Sunak, a former Treasury chief who has been prime minister since October 2022, is leading his party into the election. His primary opponent will be Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions in England and leader of the Labour Party since April 2020.

But other parties, some of which have strong regional support, could be crucial to forming a coalition government if no one wins an overall majority.

The Scottish National Party, which campaigns for Scottish independence, the Liberal Democrats, and the Democratic Unionist Party, which seeks to maintain ties between Britain and Northern Ireland, are currently the three largest parties in Parliament after the Conservatives and Labour. Many observers suggest the new Reform Party, formed by Tory rebels, may siphon votes from the Conservatives.

How long have the Tories been in power and what happened during those years?

The Tories have held power for 14 years. They imposed years of financial austerity after the financial crisis, led Britain out of the European Union, and struggled to contain one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in western Europe. Most recently, Britain has been divided over how to respond to migrants and asylum seekers crossing the English Channel and has been battered by a cost-of-living crisis as prices soar.

Throughout it all, there were a series of ethical lapses by ministers and lockdown-busting parties in government offices. The scandals ultimately chased former Prime Minister Boris Johnson from office and finally from Parliament after he was found to have lied to lawmakers. His successor, Liz Truss, lasted 45 days after her economic policies cratered the economy.

What are the big issues at stake?

The economy: Britain has struggled with high inflation and slow economic growth, which have combined to make most people feel poorer. The Conservatives succeeded in meeting their goal of halving inflation, which peaked at 11.1% in October 2022, but the economy slipped into a technical recession in the last six months of 2023, raising questions about the government’s economic policies.

Immigration: Thousands of asylum seekers and economic migrants have crossed the English Channel in flimsy inflatable boats in recent years, raising concerns the government has lost control of Britain’s borders. The Conservatives’ signature policy for stopping the boats is a plan to deport some of these migrants to Rwanda. Critics say the plan violates international law, is inhumane, and will do nothing to stop people fleeing war, unrest and famine.

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Health care: Britain’s National Health Service, which provides free health care to everyone, is plagued with long waiting lists for everything from dental care to cancer treatment. Newspapers are filled with stories about seriously ill patients forced to wait hours for an ambulance, then longer still for a hospital bed.

The environment: Sunak has backtracked on a series of environmental commitments, pushing back the deadline for ending the sale of gasoline- and diesel-powered passenger vehicles and authorizing new oil drilling in the North Sea. Critics say these are the wrong policies at a time the world is trying to combat climate change.

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