London, England – Britain is due to hold a general election in the second half of 2024 and Rishi Sunak, the UK’s Conservative leader, is under pressure.
The right-wing party that has governed Britain for more than 10 years is far behind the main opposition Labor Party in the polls.
Earlier this month, a YouGov survey of around 14,000 people and published by The Telegraph newspaper predicted that Labor could win 385 parliamentary seats. The Conservatives are on course to retain just 169 seats, a bigger loss than in 1997, when Labour’s Tony Blair triumphed over John Major.
On the world stage, observers say Sunak’s decision to join the United States targeting Yemen’s Houthis in retaliation for their attacks in the Red Sea and his refusal to call for a ceasefire in Gaza could affect his popularity rating.
Al Jazeera spoke to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, about the upcoming election, the challenges facing Sunak, 43, and Labor’s chances.
Al Jazeera: Sunak faces several crises. Like him is having trouble with an offer expel refugees to Rwanda, the war in Ukraine still rages, as does the Israeli attack on Gaza. Is he the right person to run UK foreign policy and government at the moment?
Tim Bale: I think we’d have to say he’s a brilliant guy. He’s a hard-working guy. So he’s probably involved in every issue, as much as any prime minister could be.
I think his problem on the world stage is that very few of his interlocutors assume he’ll be around this time next year, which means his influence is inevitably less than it otherwise would have been.
At home he suffers from the same problem in that I think any solutions he proposes, or any actions he takes, will always be seen as temporary rather than Britain’s future policy.
Al Jazeera: Many British Muslims and pro-Palestinian Britons say they are disillusioned with the two main parties since neither has vehemently called for a lasting ceasefire in Gaza. What impact will this have on the Conservatives as the election approaches?
Ball: I think it is very unlikely that this will have an impact on the Conservative vote, because very few people who are worried about the war in Gaza, especially on the Muslim side, will support the Conservatives anyway. Their vote among Muslim voters is generally very low.
It’s possible that if we were drawn into, for example, a broader conflict involving Yemen and we had to start committing more forces to that theater of war, I think public opinion could react strongly against that and against this government.
As for the Labor Party, much has been written about the threat to some Labor MPs representing constituencies with very high Muslim populations.
But very often they have very, very large majorities, so even if there are people in those constituencies who are very attached to Gaza and therefore vote against Labor, they probably have enough of a margin of safety to survive.
Furthermore, it is rather reductive to suggest that voters of Islamic faith are solely defined by that faith. They also have to operate in an economy that is suffering from a cost of living crisis.
Al Jazeera: As the new year begins, what are Sunak’s priorities?
Ball: The evidence is stop the boats issue and the government’s ability or inability to stop the number of people crossing the Channel to seek asylum.
The other questions are perennial (like) the state of the economy. Some are now suggesting that Britain will enter recession before the election, which is never good for a government.
Clearly, inflation is falling, but perhaps not as fast as people would like.
People are still suffering from the cost of living crisis that they have been going through for a year or two now.
The other big problem that the government can’t seem to do anything about is the state of the National Health Service, the huge waiting lists and the difficulty of finding a (family doctor).
One possibility, towards the end of the year, will be the US election and the extent to which Donald Trump supports Rishi Sunak or not.
The possibility of Trump being elected before an election is held will make people feel that the world has suddenly become more unstable and, therefore, perhaps more inclined to vote for the current government rather than a new option.
Al Jazeera: Election polls point to an electoral defeat for the Conservative Party, with a defeat not seen since 1997. Is this likely?
Ball: It is very difficult to imagine a government this far in the polls at this stage of the election cycle, with a relatively unpopular Prime Minister, presiding over an economy that is, at best, going downhill, and an NHS that most people seem thinking he will collapse and be able to win the election.
Clearly Labor have a big mountain to climb because they did so poorly last time. They need to win a lot of seats to get a majority.
But I think it now seems entirely possible. Still, I think the predictions of a landslide are probably exaggerated.
Al Jazeera: What trends are we seeing from early polls, particularly among Britons who traditionally voted Labor but switched to the Conservatives in the 2019 election?
Ball: It is clear that the Conservative Party has lost a lot of support in the seats it wrested from Labour. Partly because (former British Prime Minister) Boris Johnson was very popular, partly because (former Labor leader) Jeremy Corbyn was very unpopular and partly because these seats were largely in favor of Brexit.
Now that Brexit has, to some extent, faded from the rearview mirror, it is less of an issue for these voters, and what matters more to them are fundamental issues like the economy and the NHS.
One might expect a large proportion of these seats to go to Labor given the government’s mismanagement of these particular issues.
The government is also in trouble with so-called blue wall seats (which are staunchly conservative).
These are seats located in the south and east, which are rather wealthier. (Conservatives are) very tough on immigration, on woke, and all that kind of stuff is not popular among well-educated people who often live in these wealthy areas.
Generally speaking, (the trends) show that the government is seen as exhausted, out of ideas and too right-wing for many – which does not bode well for its electoral chances.
Al Jazeera: What can we expect from a government led by Labour’s Keir Starmer and what impact on European politics?
Ball: I think it’s the $64,000 issue, in a way, because Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, ran a very cautious campaign.
They don’t offer much more spending. They are not really up to the citizens (on) the taxation necessary to help public services recover from the ten years of austerity that we have experienced.
I suspect the Labor government would be more radical and more inclined to spend money than people think, and to raise taxes.
In terms of its impact on European politics, generally speaking, Europe seems to lean to the right.
If a Labor government were elected, it would at least give some Europeans hope that it is not entirely impossible for a center-left government, made up of a group of social democrats, to win power.
Al Jazeera: Will the climate crisis be an electoral issue?
Ball: What is very urgent is the climate emergency. Even though Labor has been talking about some kind of big green investment fund, I think they will probably downplay it because they are worried about criticism from the Conservatives over the cost of this program.
But if anyone were to think about this election 50 years from now, when the planet will be much warmer and we’ll be suffering all kinds of consequences, they might wonder why they were talking about pretty trivial things. when the world burns?
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.