Ahead of the debate, the UK election campaign got more complicated

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labor Party, will face off on Tuesday evening in their first debate of the British general election. But it is a third man, Nigel Farage, who catches the eye in a race characterized, so far, by a leader in decline and an adversary on the rise.

Farage, a cheerful rebel who has long roamed the right-wing fringes of British politics, has said he will run as a candidate for Reform UK, a party he co-founded. This has shaken up the race and threatens to siphon votes from Sunak's Conservative Party, given Reform UK's strident anti-immigration message.

Farage's entry into the race is not in itself transformative. He ran seven times for a seat in the British Parliament, losing each time. But his return could give impetus to other reformist UK candidates, throwing yet another obstacle in Sunak's path between now and the July 4 vote.

The prime minister is struggling to avoid a crushing defeat for Labour, who has held a double-digit lead over the Conservatives for more than a year. His debate with Starmer, albeit early in the campaign, is already looming as a decisive opportunity to change a rapidly congealing narrative.

“The elections are over; it's done; Labor won the election,” Farage said as he declared his candidacy in a surprise announcement on Monday. Describing it as “the dullest, most boring general election campaign we have ever seen in our lives”, Farage, 60, said the race needed to “spice up” and offered himself as a tonic.

Sunak called the election on May 22, several months earlier than expected, partly to capitalize on some glimmers of good economic news. He has moved aggressively to appeal to voters who might be attracted to the far-right Reform UK party, proposing a national service requirement for 18-year-olds and launching a new law that would exclude transgender women from women's toilets and women's prisons. .

But the Conservatives walked out of the immigration gates when Sunak said his government's flagship plan to put asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda would not start before the election. The Labor Party has vowed to shelve politics if it comes to power, suggesting the flights may never happen.

There is no evidence that Sunak's decision to address voters has changed the dismal electoral picture for the Conservatives. A poll released on Monday by market research firm YouGov, which interviewed nearly 60,000 adults, forecast the party will lose 225 seats while Labor will gain 220.

While more bullish than projections for Labour, these numbers would give the party a larger majority than even former prime minister Tony Blair achieved in his landslide victory in 1997. The poll does not predict Reform UK to win any seats, a testament to the obstacles that smaller parties face in gaining seats in Britain's majoritarian electoral system, although it was conducted before Farage's announcement.

For Farage, analysts say, the decision to run for Parliament could be part of a broader strategy to take control of the Conservative Party after his expected defeat. But throwing his hat into the ring now is not without its risks, they said, and they go beyond his potential eighth straight defeat.

“On the one hand, it is newsworthy and will almost certainly prove to be another nail in the government's coffin,” said Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London. “On the other hand, if he does too much damage to the Conservatives, the remaining Conservative MPs in Parliament, and even some of the party's grassroots activists who say they love him, will not feel too fondly towards him.”

“However,” Professor Bale added, “a hostile takeover is still an acquisition.”

Whether he wins or not, Farage will electrify a campaign that started badly, dating back to Sunak's announcement, made in a soaking shower outside 10 Downing Street.

As Sunak withdrew from Rwanda, Starmer's Labor Party lost several days in an internal row over Diane Abbott, a black member of Parliament who was suspended from Labor last year for suggesting that Irish, Jewish and travelers don't have to face racism at home. the same way as blacks. (Travelers are some of the most disadvantaged nomadic minority groups in Britain.)

Ms Abbott, a revered figure on the party's left, was expected to withdraw from the election in exchange for having her suspension lifted and her peerage to the House of Lords. But after she objected and the progressive wing of the party rose to defend her, Starmer said she was “free to move forward as a Labor candidate”.

Mrs Abbott, 70, confirmed she intended to stand to win back her seat in north London, ending an episode that distracted from Labour's theme of “change” after 14 years of Conservative government.

Starmer tried to get back on his feet on Monday with a speech in which he pledged to increase Britain's military spending and modernize its nuclear arsenal. He said he would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons to defend Britain, a statement designed to repel Conservative criticism that Labor is weak on national security.

Conservative officials have pointed out that the last time the country's Trident nuclear weapons system was renewed, in 2016, senior figures in the Labor Party, including David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, and Angela Rayner, the deputy leader , both voted against. (Mr Starmer voted to renew it.)

“This is a changed Labor Party and, most importantly, I voted for a nuclear deterrent,” Starmer said. “I lead from the front; I have always led from the front.”

Given the size of Labour's lead over the Conservatives, analysts said the biggest danger for Starmer is self-created problems, which could cause voters to have second thoughts about the party. This is why the dispute over Ms Abbott's status has frustrated some Labor supporters.

But Mr Starmer's challenge pales next to that of Mr Sunak, who is trying to save his group from oblivion. He ran an energetic but uneven campaign, laughing at jokes about his rain-soaked debut and bravely accepting umbrellas.

Not a born politician, the prime minister has soldiered on through campaign appearances and photo opportunities that have occasionally proven controversial. Last week, a young man, referring to the party's proposal for compulsory national service, asked him: “Why do you hate young people so much?”

On Sunday, Sunak posted a video on TikTok to poke fun at what he says is the Labor Party's lack of plans. He flipped the cover of a flip chart to reveal a blank page. Within minutes, Labor workers edited the video to list the party's objectives on the blank page. The next day, Mr Sunak was photographed chatting to residents of Henley-on-Thames, England. Behind him sailed a boat with Liberal Democrat supporters, cheering and waving placards.

Sunak has long ruled out any alliance between the Conservatives and Reform UK On Monday he ignored a threat from Farage, who will stand for a seat in the coastal constituency of Clacton.

“At the end of the day on July 5, one of two people will be prime minister, either Keir Starmer or me,” Sunak told broadcasters. “A vote for anyone other than a Conservative candidate is just a vote to put Keir Starmer in No 10.”

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