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WORLD | 05-07-2024 10:46

New UK PM Starmer vows to 'rebuild Britain' after landslide election win

Keir Starmer becomes Britain's new prime minister after his centre-left opposition Labour party swept to a landslide general election victory. Rishi Sunak concedes defeat, bringing to end to 14 years of right-wing Conservative rule.

Keir Starmer on Friday promised to "rebuild Britain" as he took office as the UK's new prime minister following his centre-left Labour party's landslide general election victory that ended 14 years of Conservative rule.

Head of state King Charles III asked Starmer to form a government during a meeting at Buckingham Palace, officially appointing the 61-year-old former human rights lawyer as prime minister.

Flag-waving crowds of cheering Labour activists lined Downing Street as Starmer arrived as the party's first prime minister since Gordon Brown in 2010.

"Now, our country has voted decisively for change, for national renewal and a return of politics to public service," he said in his first speech in the role.

"The work of change begins immediately, but have no doubt, we will rebuild Britain."

 

'Sorry'

A sombre Rishi Sunak conceded defeat during a torrid night for his Conservatives that claimed the scalps of at least 12 of his senior Cabinet colleagues – and his predecessor Liz Truss.

Truss's disastrous 49-day tenure effectively sealed the Tories' fate with the public two years ago, when her unfunded tax cuts spooked markets and crashed the pound.

Before leaving Downing Street for the final time as prime minister, Sunak said "sorry" to the public and that he would step down as Tory leader once formal arrangements for a successor are in place.

Labour raced past the 326 seats needed to secure an overall majority in the 650-seat House of Commons at 4am GMT, with the final result expected on Saturday.

As of midday GMT on Friday, the party had won 412 seats in the House of Commons with only two results left to declare, giving it a majority of more than 170.

The Tories won just 121 seats – a record low – with the right-wing vote apparently spliced by Nigel Farage's anti-immigration Reform UK party. 

In another boost for the centrists, the smaller opposition Liberal Democrats ousted the Scottish National Party as the third-biggest party.

 

World reaction

The results buck a trend among Britain's closest Western allies, with the far right in France eyeing power and Donald Trump looking set for a return in the United States. 

Congratulations came in from the European Council chief Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who said Starmer would be a "very good, very successful" prime minister.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the two countries would "continue to be reliable allies through thick and thin".

Outside London's busy Waterloo station, Ramsey Sargent called it a "super exciting time."

"It was absolutely a momentous election. It has been very rocky over the last few months and years. I'm really excited to see what happens next," the 49-year-old engagement officer told AFP.

 

'Catastrophic'

Sunak tendered his resignation to the king shortly after returning to London from his rural constituency in northern England, where the depth of his party's defeat quickly became apparent. 

The Tories' worst previous election result was 156 seats in 1906. Former leader William Hague told Times Radio the result was "a catastrophic result in historic terms."

But Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary, University of London, said it was "not as catastrophic as some were predicting" and the Tories would now need to decide how best to fight back. 

Right-wing former interior minister Suella Braverman said the Tories failed because they had not listened to the British people.

But Brexit champion Farage, who finally succeeded in becoming an MP at the eighth attempt, has made no secret of his aim to take over the party.

"There is a massive gap on the centre-right of British politics and my job is to fill it," he said after a comfortable win in Clacton, eastern England. 

 

To-do list

Labour's resurgence is a stunning turnaround from five years ago, when hard-left former leader Jeremy Corbyn took the party to its worst defeat since 1935 in an election dominated by Brexit. 

Starmer took over in early 2020 and set about moving the party back to the centre, making it a more electable proposition and purging the infighting and anti-Semitism that cost it support. 

Opinion polls consistently put Labour 20 points ahead of the Tories since Truss's resignation, giving an air of inevitability about a Labour win – the first since Tony Blair in 2005. 

But as the count neared the end, the gap was around 11 percent, with Labour looking set to win fewer votes than it did in 2019, partly reflecting a lower turnout.

Starmer is facing a daunting to-do list, with economic growth anaemic, public services overstretched and underfunded due to swingeing cuts, and households squeezed financially. 

He has also promised a return of political integrity, after a chaotic period of five Tory prime ministers in 14 years, scandal and sleaze.

 

Five key takeways from UK general election

1. Labour landslide, but not historic

Labour won 412 seats in the 650-seat parliament with only three seats left to declare, guaranteeing the centre-left party a whopping majority after 14 years in opposition. 

Starmer, a 61-year-old former lawyer, will become prime minister after steering his party from one of its worst ever performances in 2019 to victory.

His party capitalised on voter anger at the outgoing Tories, particularly in the so-called "red wall" – post-industrial areas that traditionally voted Labour, but which switched Conservative in 2019. 

However, contrary to polling throughout the campaign, Labour's landslide will be less spectacular than that won by Tony Blair in 1997 (418 seats) and the party, paradoxically, looks set to win fewer votes than it did in 2019's nadir election. 

In fact, Labour's vote share of around 34 percent will be the lowest ever to secure a majority, highlighting the fracturing of the opposition and the quirks of the UK's electoral system.

Starmer will also face former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the next parliament, who the incoming prime minister blocked from standing as a Labour candidate for his handling of accusations of anti-Semitism within the party.

The veteran left-winger stood as an independent and won, and threatens to be a thorn in the side of Starmer's government. 

2. Hard-right breakthrough

The anti-immigration Reform UK, led by Brexit talisman Nigel Farage, fired a shot across the bows of the establishment by winning more than four million votes, the third highest vote share of any party.  

The party outperformed the Conservatives in many constituencies and performed strongly in "red wall" areas, but only ended up with four seats due to the first-past-the-post voting system.

Farage, 60, was elected for the first time in the constituency of Clacton-on-Sea, south east England, and promised the result would be "just the first step of something that is going to stun all of you."

3. Conservative catastrophe

"Massacre, catastrophe, Waterloo..." there was no shortage of words to describe the depths of the defeat for the Tories, who won a landslide only five years ago but looked set to be reduced to around 120 seats.  

A record nine senior ministers from the outgoing government lost, although several other big names narrowly saved their seats, including finance minister Jeremy Hunt and party chairman Richard Holden, who won by 20 votes. 

A final humiliation arrived in the early morning when former prime minister Liz Truss, whose 49-day rule in 2022 ended when the markets turned against her radical tax-slashing plans, lost her seat. 

Next will come the brutal post-mortem, as the party decides how it will rebuild and whether it tacks to the right or centre. 

4. Scottish nationalists in crisis

The Scottish nationalists suffered a terrible evening, with former first minister and independence figurehead Nicola Sturgeon admitting that "it's not a good night" for the Scottish National Party (SNP). 

The party has dominated Scottish politics for 15 years, but has now ceded control to Labour and been relegated from third to fourth place in Westminster after returning just nine MPs, compared to 48 at the last election.

It is still under investigation over its financing and now has no clear strategy to win independence from the UK, a dream that seemed revived after the Brexit vote. 

5. Lib Dem comeback

The return of the pro-EU Lib Dems as the third largest party and a major force in Westminster is one of the election's more unlikely stories following its dismal showing in 2019. 

Winning more than 70 seats, the party enjoyed its best ever result, eclipsing its success in the early 2000s that led it to forming a coalition government with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015. 

The party also benefited from the rejection of the Conservatives by more liberal and centrist voters, who were turned off by its rightward drift following the Brexit vote. 

 

– TIMES/AFP

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