Two contrasting leaders compete for power in UK election

Sunak, 44, the multi-millionaire Conservative incumbent with a finance background, is up against 61-year-old Labour leader Keir Starmer, a toolmaker's son

By AFP

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Staff members listen to Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak during a Q&A at a distribution centre as part of a campaign event ahead of a general election on July 4, in Ilkeston, Britain, on May 23. — Reuters
Staff members listen to Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak during a Q&A at a distribution centre as part of a campaign event ahead of a general election on July 4, in Ilkeston, Britain, on May 23. — Reuters

Published: Thu 23 May 2024, 8:43 PM

The UK general election pits against each other two main party leaders born nearly two decades apart and with contrasting profiles, for what is expected to be a highly personalised battle for power.

Rishi Sunak, 44, the multi-millionaire Conservative incumbent with a finance background, is up against 61-year-old Labour leader Keir Starmer, a toolmaker's son who first forged a career as a human rights lawyer.


The July 4 contest comes with Sunak's Tories struggling to retain power after 14 largely chaotic years in charge.

Sunak is the party's fifth prime minister since it ousted Labour in 2010 and was selected to be prime minister by Tory MPs in October 2022 after Liz Truss's disastrous 49-day tenure.


He has never faced the electorate as Conservative leader and polls throughout his 19 months in Downing Street, as well as a string of by-election and local election defeats, suggest he is on course to lose badly.

Dozens of Tory lawmakers have already announced they will not stand for re-election, in a sign of internal dismay at their prospects of victory.

In calling the election, Sunak is trying to capitalise on a slightly improving economic picture of recent weeks, arguing his plans are working.

But the odds are stacked against the former investment banker, who is wealthier than King Charles III.

Nearly 75 percent of voters view him unfavourably, according to a YouGov poll published on Wednesday, while his party is on average 20 points behind Labour.

"I will earn your trust," the ex-finance minister told voters as the campaigning kicked off.

Aged just 42 when he took power -- the youngest prime minister since 1812 -- Sunak is seen as a details-oriented policy wonk.

He has presented himself as a stable choice at a time of crisis, vowing to protect Britons in a world "more dangerous than it has been since the end of the Cold War".

Despite falling short on most of the key pledges he set himself, he claims he is the only one with a "clear plan".

Born to Hindu parents of Indian origin, he is a graduate of Oxford University and Stanford University in the United States.

Privately wealthy from his former career, he also married the daughter of an Indian billionaire.

British opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer attends a Labour general election campaign event at Priestfield Stadium, the home of Gillingham football club in Gillingham, southeast Britain, on May 23, 2024. — Reuters
British opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer attends a Labour general election campaign event at Priestfield Stadium, the home of Gillingham football club in Gillingham, southeast Britain, on May 23, 2024. — Reuters

An early backer of Brexit, he lacks the populist instincts of his predecessor Boris Johnson and has struggled to connect with voters.

He has made tackling irregular immigration a priority, persevering with Johnson's contentious plan to send to Rwanda thousands of migrants who have crossed the Channel from northern France.

But the scheme has been mired in legal challenges, and Sunak on Thursday conceded that the first flights will not take off before the election.

Labour has vowed to scrap the plan.

Starmer is a former human rights lawyer and top prosecutor who has revitalised the opposition party's fortunes despite facing persistent criticism that he lacks charisma.

An MP since 2015, he succeeded leftist firebrand Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader after the party's worst election performance in decades in 2019.

He has doggedly shifted the party back to the political centre-ground, angering its vocal left-wing but appearing to restore trust with voters.

"We have changed the Labour party, returned it once more to the service of working people," Starmer said as he kicked off electioneering.

"All we ask now -- humbly -- is to do exactly the same for our country."

Despite promising in his early years as leader sweeping policy shifts on the environment, taxation and other areas, he has since rowed back on some, citing the country's economic woes.

Like Sunak, Starmer has struggled to connect with voters, with only around a third voicing a favourable opinion, compared to around half saying they saw him unfavourably, according to YouGov.

Cautious and disciplined, he appears to have calculated that the Conservatives' unpopularity could outweigh that apparent lack of enthusiasm for him.

His priorities for government reflect that, stressing broad aims -- from fostering economic stability to reducing waiting lists in the public health service.

Weary of the defining issue in 2019 that contributed to its heavy defeat, Labour has also vowed to "turn the page on the post-Brexit rancour of the past".

Given the lack of stark policy differences between the party and the Conservatives, the campaign is likely to see the two leaders trade heavy personal attacks.

"It will feel like a long campaign," Starmer conceded on Thursday.



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