General election: Sunak fires starting gun - as Starmer says it's 'time for change'

The race for Number 10 begins in earnest today following Rishi Sunak's decision to call a summer general election in a high stakes move that could bring to an end his party's 14 years in government.

The prime minister took the gamble of his political life when he announced that he will go to the country on 4 July - much sooner than had been expected and while the Tories are languishing behind Labour in the opinion polls.

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Outlining his decision in the pouring rain outside of Downing Street, a sodden Mr Sunak said that "now is the moment for Britain to choose its future" as he claimed his party could be trusted to lead the country in a time of global instability.

In response, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told voters: "Together we can stop the chaos, we can turn the page, we can start to rebuild Britain."

A July election is earlier than many in Westminster had expected, with a contest in October or November widely thought to have been more likely.

The move has surprised and even upset some within the Conservative ranks, with senior figures telling Sky News' political editor Beth Rigby the decision is "madness" given Labour's 20 point lead in the polls.

Some Tory MPs publicly expressed their concerns, with backbencher Tracey Crouch posting on X: "I am feeling quite emotional about all this.

"I was anticipating an autumn departure from Parliament and still had important issues to raise on behalf of my constituents between now and then. I am sad that I won't now get to do that."

The election timing allows just two days for "wash-up", when the government finalises non-contentious pieces of legislation before parliament is dissolved.

It means that some of the Conservative's flagship plans, such as a ban on smoking, leasehold reforms and improvements to renters' rights might be left to the next government.

Mr Sunak is said to have made the calculation that little would change between now and November.

Housing Secretary Michael Gove is said to have been among those who backed the gamble during emergency cabinet discussions, telling the prime minister: "Who dares wins. And you dared, and you're going to win."

The announcement came after the Office for National Statistics said inflation slowed to 2.3% in April, down from 3.2% in March.

In a sign of what the election will be fought on, the prime minister made the economy a key element of his pitch to the nation, saying the inflation figures are "proof that the plan and priorities I set out are working".

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He also highlighted Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, the tensions in the Middle East relating to the Israel-Hamas conflict, the threat of China and migration "being weaponised by hostile states to threaten the integrity of our borders".

"These uncertain times call for a clear plan and bold action to chart a course to a secure future," he said.

Later, at a campaign rally that saw Sky News' Darren McCaffery escorted out, Mr Sunak acknowledged he was the underdog but suggested Labour was acting like it had already won.

"Labour want you to think that this election is over before it has even begun.

"But we are going to fight every day for our values and our vision and the British people are going to show Labour that they don't take too kindly to being taken for granted."

But Labour leader Sir Keir said: "If they get another five years they will feel entitled to carry on exactly as they are. Nothing will change."

He promised a "new spirit of service", putting the country before party interests.

"I am well aware of the cynicism people hold towards politicians at the moment, but I came into politics late, having served our country as leader of the Crown Prosecution Service, and I helped the Police Service in Northern Ireland to gain the consent of all communities."

Labour needs a swing of 12.5 percentage points just to win a majority of one - something even Sir Tony Blair did not achieve in his landslide victory of 1997.

But having transformed the party after its historic defeat in 2019, some pollsters believe Sir Keir could wipe out the Tories and be swept into power with as many as 400 seats.

If that happens it would be a remarkable turn of events compared to the last election, which saw the Conservatives under Boris Johnson win a thumping 80-seat majority.

That has since been slashed by a series of by-election losses, while repeated leadership elections and sleaze scandals have seen the Tories' popularity plummet among voters.