Keir Starmer said Labour is ready for the election
Keir Starmer said Labour is ready for the election AFP News

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Thursday he had pencilled in later this year for a general election, as he and his main political rival to be Britain's next leader effectively kicked off campaigning.

Sunak and opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer both made their first public appearances of 2024, Sunak travelling to Mansfield, in the English Midlands, and Starmer to Bristol, in the West Country.

Sunak's ruling Conservative party has been in power for 14 years but is widely expected to lose the vote, which must be held before the end of January 2025.

He has already ruled out leaving it until the last minute to go to the country, not just to secure a fifth consecutive term of office for the Tories but his own mandate with the electorate.

The former finance minister was elected in an internal party ballot in October 2022, taking over from the short-lived Liz Truss after Boris Johnson quit following a series of scandals.

Speculation has been mounting about when Sunak will decide to hold the vote, as he tries to drive down inflation that peaked at nearly 11 percent and reboot economic growth.

"My working assumption is we'll have a general election in the second half of this year," he told reporters.

Sunak refused to rule out holding the poll on May 2 to coincide with local elections but indicated he wanted more time to get the economy back on an even keel.

"I want to keep going, managing the economy well and cutting people's taxes. But I also want to keep tackling illegal migration," he said, referring to another of his right-wing party's key pledges.

"So I've got lots to get on with and I'm determined to keep delivering for the British people."

The Tories, who have had five leaders and prime ministers since they were elected in 2010, are widely expected to lose the election, handing power to Starmer's Labour.

The Conservatives' years in power have been bookended by economic troubles -- first the fall-out from the 2008 global financial crash and latterly a cost-of-living crisis that has sparked widespread industrial unrest.

A May election would come soon after the March 6 government budget, when the Tories are tipped to announce tax cuts to woo voters.

If Sunak does opt to set the ballot for later in the year, then October is seen as most likely time to avoid clashing with the US election and party conferences.

Winter elections are rare in Britain due to weather affecting turnout.

Ed Davey, leader of the smaller Liberal Democrat party, said Sunak had "bottled it" by talking down a spring vote while Starmer accused the PM of "squatting" in Downing Street.

The Labour leader said he was "ready" for the election and urged Sunak to "bring it on".

The 61-year-old former chief state prosecutor added the election would offer the UK the chance to "get our future back", laying out what he called "Project Hope" in a lengthy speech broadcast live on TV news channels.

Starmer told voters the poll would be a choice between "14 years of decline" and "a decade of national renewal".

"This is your year. The chance, finally, to turn the page, lift the weight off our shoulders, unite as a country and get our future back," Starmer said.

His speech was thin on policy detail but he repeated existing pledges to spur higher growth, put more police on Britain's streets and create a publicly owned clean national energy company.

Labour has enjoyed double-digit poll leads for over a year now, putting it on track to become the largest party in parliament, with Starmer as prime minister.

He said voters were right to be "angry about what politics has become" following three Conservative prime ministers in little over a year.

But he warned against apathy.

"The biggest challenge we face, bar none, (is) the shrug of the shoulder," said Starmer.

Johnson won a landslide victory for the Tories at the last election in December 2019, on a pledge to "get Brexit done".

Britain left the European Union at the start of 2020 before Johnson became mired in scandal, including over rule-breaking lockdown parties during the Covid-19 pandemic.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he expected the general election to be held 'in the second half' of 2024
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he expected the general election to be held 'in the second half' of 2024 AFP News