Home News Sometimes American and British politics seem to be in lockstep. But that...

Sometimes American and British politics seem to be in lockstep. But that has not been the case this year.


Britain’s Conservative prime minister has set a long-awaited vote for early summer, while the United States will hold a momentous presidential election in a few months. In 2016, the British voted to leave the European Union, while the Americans elected Donald Trump. Now, it’s happening again.

Political prognosticators might be tempted to study the results of the UK’s July 4 election to get a sense of how the US vote will turn out on November 5. After all, in 2016, Britain’s shocking Brexit referendum was seen as a harbinger of Trump’s unexpected victory later that year.

But this time, past may not be prologue. British voters appear poised to elect the opposition Labour Party in a possible landslide victory over the embattled Conservatives, while in the United States, Democratic President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is locked in a tight race with Trump and his Republican supporters.

“We are in a very different political environment to the United States right now,” said Robert Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester. He noted that the Conservatives have been in power for 14 years, Brexit is no longer a political issue and Britain has yet to see the emergence of a Trump equivalent.

Ben Ansell, professor of comparative democracies at Oxford University, said if there was a common theme on both sides of the Atlantic, “it’s that being an incumbent president is really terrible”.

Sunak is said to have decided to call an election months early because he does not expect the UK economic situation to improve any more between now and the autumn. Analysts say Sunak, who trails Labour by more than 20 percentage points in most opinion polls, believes the Conservatives can cut their losses by facing voters now.

While there is no evidence that the US political calendar influenced Sunak’s decision, holding the election on July 4 has the side benefit of avoiding any overlap. If he waits until November 17, as political bookmakers predict, he risks being caught up in the fallout from the US election.

Political analysts are already debating whether a Trump victory would benefit the Conservatives or Labour. Some have speculated that Sunak could use the chaos of a Trump comeback as a reason to side with the Conservatives, who might get along better with Trump than Labour leader Keir Starmer.

It doesn’t matter now: before the Republican and Democratic parties have even held their conventions, Britain will have a new Parliament and, quite possibly, a new Prime Minister.

Still, analysts say the shape and scale of Britain’s election results could have lessons for the U.S. The two countries remain politically in sync on many issues, whether it’s anxiety over immigration, anger over inflation or clashes over social and cultural issues.

“Imagine the Conservatives collapse, as happened in Canada in 1993,” said Professor Ansell, referring to the federal election when the then-governing Progressive Conservative Party Almost wiped out The Liberal Party even squeezed out the Reform Party to become the main right-wing party in Canada.

The threat to Britain’s Conservatives is far milder than that to the Reform UK party, which was co-founded by populist Nigel Farage and campaigned on an anti-immigration slogan. The latest YouGov poll shows that A poll by market research firm Bloomberg before Sunak called the election had Reform at 12 percent, the Conservatives at 21 percent and Labour at 46 percent. Other polls since Sunak’s announcement have shown little change in support.

Professor Ansell said the reform movement in Britain “may indicate a resurgence of populism in the UK and could also be a harbinger of the same happening in the US this autumn”.

Instead, he said, the sharp gains of Britain’s center-left parties — Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens — might reassure U.S. Democrats that their better-than-expected results in midterm and special elections were not a fluke but a reflection of the resilience of progressive politics around the world.

Some right-wing critics of the Conservatives blame their decline on a shift away from the economic nationalism that fueled the 2016 Brexit referendum and led to a landslide victory in 2019 under then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson. They say the Conservatives’ embrace of free-market policies puts the party out of step with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign and right-wing movements in Italy, the Netherlands and France.

Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent, said: “Whatever you think of Trump – he’s unstable, he’s a threat to democracy – if you look at his polls, he’s doing much better than the Conservatives.”

Part of the difference, of course, is that Trump has been out of office for nearly four years, which means he, unlike the Conservatives, is not blamed for the cost of living crisis. Nor is he blamed for failing to control the border, as Biden is in the US and Sunak is in the UK.

In an effort to mobilize Conservative voters, Sunak’s rhetoric echoes the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Brexiteers in 2016. To stop small boats from crossing the English Channel, Sunak spent much of his time as prime minister promoting a plan to put asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda. The plan was expensive, much-criticized and failed, and had many similarities to Trump’s border wall.

“It’s a bit like our Trump moment,” said Kim Darroch, a former British ambassador to Washington. “But given the legacy that Keir Starmer will inherit, you can’t rule out the possibility that someone on the Conservative right will take advantage of a weak Labour government to return to power in four or five years.”

Yet Brexit, the issue decided in a 2016 referendum that dominated British politics for years, is barely mentioned in 2024. Analysts say that reflects voter fatigue, a recognition by the Conservative Party that Brexit has hurt the economy and acceptance that Britain will not rejoin the European Union anytime soon.

“You’re not allowed to talk about Brexit because both parties are afraid of what will happen if you leave it alone,” said Chris Patten, a former Hong Kong governor and Conservative politician who led the Conservatives to a surprise victory over Labour in 1992 as party chairman after falling behind in the polls.

Patten said he doubted the Conservatives could succeed this time, given voters’ deep fatigue with the party and the differences between Sunak and John Major, who was prime minister in 1992.

Frank Luntz, an American political strategist who has lived and worked in Britain, said elections in Britain and the United States were driven more by widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo than ideological battles.

“The world we live in now is completely different than it was in 2016,” Lentz said. “But one thing that is common on both sides of the Atlantic is a feeling that can be summed up in one word: enough is enough.”

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