01:24 - Source: CNN
British PM calls for election as crowd plays opposition anthem

Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

London CNN  — 

On Wednesday, after a day of febrile speculation and unseasonably foul weather, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak braved the London drizzle to announce that a general election will be held on July 4.

The news was met with predictable fervor by Westminster journalists. Laments along the lines of “but we’ll be on holiday!” were countered with wry asides along the lines of “so will the Tories’ civil servants and ministers.” The irony of the date was not lost. A country potentially renouncing a callous and incompetent British government? On July 4? Imagine.

For those outside the Westminster bubble, the announcement felt less like a starting pistol than a final gasp. Reporters can be as guilty as lawmakers of rationalizing such events along purely political lines. Much will be written over the next several weeks about Sunak’s legacy as prime minister, in the likely event that his administration will soon be over.

Comparisons have already been drawn between the opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer and his various predecessors, particularly Tony Blair, whose landslide victory he’ll have to surpass to win a majority in parliament. But for most people, the state of affairs in Westminster is far less urgent than the state of the country after 14 years of Tory rule.

Talk to practically anyone who isn’t a multi-millionaire, and the consensus is: Life in the UK feels exponentially harder than it did back in 2010. This is particularly evident in the two issues currently closest to Britons’ hearts: The economy and health care.

Let’s start with the latter. As of January 2024, one in 20 people in England wait at least four weeks to see a general practitioner, according to data from the NHS. If you need to go to the hospital, the situation is even scarier. Earlier this month, the British Medical Association (BMA) reported that the number of patients waiting more than 12 hours to be admitted in an emergency was about 95 times higher in April 2024 than in April 2019. Patients aren’t being discharged quickly enough because our overwhelmed social care system means there’s nowhere for them to go.

Outside the emergency room, things are no better. According to the BMA, more than 7.5 million people are on waiting lists for consultant-led elective care, and more than 3.2 million have waited more than 18 weeks for treatment. Earlier this year, it reported that doctors do not have sufficient resources to treat patients with mental illnesses, a problem compounded by a lack of trained staff and a disjointed system that stymies effective management. And despite being one of the richest countries in the world, two-thirds of our maternity units aren’t safe enough, according to a 2023 BBC analysis of Care Quality Commission records.

The circumstances are so dire that, despite paying taxes that nominally cover our health care, many Britons might be tempted to seek treatment privately. But unlike Sunak, who with his wife Akshata Murty is worth an estimated £651 million ($828 million), most of us can’t afford it.

The British economy never fully recovered from the 2008 recession and, consciously or not, most people still feel the sting every day. As Sam Knight recently noted in the New Yorker, the average British worker is estimated to be £14,000 ($17,800) worse off per year now than they would be if earnings had risen at pre-crisis rates.

To put that figure into context, the median British salary across all sectors is £28,000 ($35,600) before tax, per an estimate by The Evening Standard, based on data from the Office for National Statistics. To put that figure into context, government data says the average property in the UK costs £299,000 ($380,200). The average rent is £1,223 ($1,555) per month, according to British property software company Zoopla. You can pretty much double those numbers in London, per British real estate website Rightmove.

Of course, the recession isn’t the only thing to blame for our dire finances. Brexit, a thoroughly Tory-led endeavor, shrunk the economy by nearly £140 billion ($178 billion) according to a recent independent report, which also found that it resulted in almost 2 million fewer jobs in the UK. On an individual level, the report found that Brexit left the average Briton nearly £2,000 ($2,540) worse off in 2023. The average Londoner had nearly £3,400 ($4,323) less.

What about the pandemic, I hear you ask? Well sure, the pandemic didn’t help. Government data shows that between April and June 2020, GDP fell by a record 19.4% before rebounding 17.6% in the summer. No matter how one feels about the Tories’ response to Covid-19 — more on that shortly — they can’t be blamed for a catastrophe that brought much of the world to its knees. They can be for Liz Truss, though.

Truss, who in 2022 became Britain’s fourth consecutive Tory Prime Minister (and the second to come to power without a popular election), did more damage than anyone might have dreamed possible in her record 45-day tenure. Her disastrous mini-budget wiped £30 billion off the UK economy that autumn, according to independent think tank Resolution Foundation, and sent interest rates rocketing.

For the millions who faced a winter during which they’d have to choose between food and heating, this was the final indignity from a government whose blithe disregard for their welfare had long seemed par for the course.

This is the crux of it. It’s not just that the last 14 years have left British people poorer and more vulnerable on so many fronts. It’s the fact that no matter how bad things get, there’s never a hint of humility — let alone accountability — from the party that’s been steering the ship.

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The ultimate illustration of this came when it emerged that then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his colleagues had been hosting illegal parties in Number 10 during the pandemic, while the rest of the country was under a strict lockdown. The revelation that Johnson deliberately misled parliament about those events added insult to injury for the thousands who’d been unable to say goodbye to dying relatives, be present for the births of their children, and felt horrendously lonely for months.

There’s so much else one could say. School teachers are working under increasingly wretched conditions. It’s cheaper to go on holiday to Europe than it is to take a train to some parts of the UK. The government’s £370 million ($471 million) scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, now possibly dead in the water, has been censured by human rights experts at home and abroad. And the one unifying theme is a Tory government that’s had power for so long that they appear to have forgotten they must earn it.

Starmer is not Blair, and Labour isn’t generating the buzz the party saw in 1997. But Starmer and Labour’s critical advantage going into this election isn’t their political appeal. It’s the complacency of a Tory party that doesn’t seem to have noticed that after a decade and a half of their abysmal rule, the British people are prepared to try anything.