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Opinion: Rishi Sunak, UK’s Accidental Prime Minister, Goes For Broke

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Finally, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has decided to take a leap of faith as he last week called for an early general election. As heavy rain drenched Sunak and the new Labour anthem, Things Can Only Get Better, blared from a nearby loudspeaker, the Tory leader vowed to “fight for every vote”. The announcement took many even in the Conservative Party rank and file by surprise. But things had only been going from bad to worse for the Tories, and thus, Sunak’s move was seen as an attempt to salvage whatever he could of the Conservatives from the rubble around.

The Economy Pitch

For Sunak, the only hope lies in framing the electoral contest around the theme of economic recovery, given that inflation has fallen and the UK economy grew by 0.6% between January and March, the highest rate for two years. He has decided to bet on his ability to convince the British voters that he is the best-placed candidate to deliver an economic revival. The economy is thus set to become a key talking point in the upcoming general election campaign.

Whether this move helps or hurts Sunak remains to be seen as the Labour Party is likely to keep sharpening its focus on the rising cost of living. Labour leader Keir Starmer underlined that it was "time for change", blaming Tory "chaos" for damaging the economy and making a case that a vote for his party was a chance to bring political stability.

Read | Opinion: Rishi Sunak – Up The Creek Without A Paddle

Many among Sunak's closest advisors believed that while there certainly were green shoots of economic recovery, conditions might not improve significantly and that delaying the election could exacerbate a potential Conservative defeat, given the electorate's apparent desire for a timely say. Polls have consistently put Labour ahead, and this is a big moment for the opposition party, which has not won a UK general election since 2005. It looks like it is ready to assume governance as Starmer has been able to move Labour to the centre, a task no Labour leader was able to accomplish since the departure of Tony Blair in 2007.

Conservative Party's Internal Struggles

On the other hand, the Conservative Party has been at war with itself, a pale image of its past glory when it was deemed to be the natural party of governance. Despite Boris Johnson winning a massive victory in 2019 for the Tories, his scandal-ridden premiership collapsed in 2022, leading to frequent leadership changes. The Conservative Party continued to experience a noticeable decline over the last few years, marked by various challenges and shifts in the political landscape. It has faced internal divisions, particularly over Brexit, which have strained unity and led to significant leadership changes. Additionally, public dissatisfaction with handling issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, economic policies and social inequality, has eroded voter support.

Read | Rishi Sunak Sports ₹ 79,000 Backpack During Campaign Visit To One Of UK’s Poorest Areas

It has been an uphill road for Sunak, who tried his best to steady a wobbly Tory ship. But despite some of his noticeable achievements, he is not taken seriously as a leader. The Conservative rank and file don't see him as the person who can lead them to victory, and yet, they have been wary of replacing him for lack of options. For a party as ruthless as the Conservatives when it comes to changing its leadership for electoral success, this has been a difficult adjustment, and the strain is quite visible in its lack of self-confidence.

Little Changes For India

Despite the UK's preoccupation with managing the externalities generated by Brexit over the last few years, its relationship with India has continued to gain strength. The UK has increasingly recognised India as a pivotal player in the Indo-Pacific region. This is reflected in its “Indo-Pacific tilt” strategy, under which aims to deepen ties with India as part of a broader regional engagement. India and the UK have bolstered their defence relationship through joint military exercises, defence dialogues, and collaboration on security issues. Cooperation in cybersecurity has been a priority, with both countries committing to enhance their capabilities and share best practices to tackle cyber threats. Both nations have worked closely on counterterrorism efforts, sharing intelligence and collaborating to combat global terrorism. Bilateral trade has grown, with significant investments flowing in both directions. The UK has been one of the top investors in India, particularly in sectors such as services, technology, and infrastructure. Conversely, Indian companies have made substantial investments in the UK, particularly in the IT, pharmaceuticals, and automotive sectors. Efforts to negotiate a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement have been a focal point of economic engagement. Educational ties have been strengthened through partnerships between universities, student exchange programmes, and collaborative research projects.

There is a new ambition in India's engagement with the UK, and what is heartening is that while the Conservatives should get credit for getting their India policy right since the days of David Cameron, the Labour Party under Starmer has also recognised the need for a robust engagement with India. Irrespective of the choice British voters make, India-UK ties are likely to flourish.

[Harsh V. Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent books include 'India and the Gulf: Theoretical Perspectives and Policy Shifts' (Cambridge University Press) and 'Politics and Geopolitics: Decoding India's Neighbourhood Challenge' (Rupa)]

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author

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