The Guardian view on the general election: countdown to a reckoning that is overdue | Editorial

When Britain last held a general election, the country was still a member of the European Union, there had been no pandemic and the Conservatives had already been in power for nearly a decade. That now feels like a long time ago, but not because of any sense of progress or accomplishments by the government. Quite the opposite.

Fear of taking punishment for years of accumulated disappointment is the reason why Rishi Sunak has postponed the dissolution of parliament until now. The prime minister’s decision to set a date – the election will be on 4 July – is driven not by confidence in a record to celebrate, but by a recognition that procrastination had become untenable. The Conservative party, exhausted and riven by factional feuding, has become ungovernable, leaving the country feeling ungoverned.

The moment to ask the electorate whether they want to renew the Tories’ operating licence in power is overdue. Mr Sunak’s mandate was already threadbare when he received it as a hand-me-down from Liz Truss. She inherited it from Boris Johnson – a man whose term was cut short by an unprecedented cascade of scandal; a man who held parliament and the law in contempt; an incarnation of mendacity. The only reason his disgrace is sometimes obscured from memory is the scale of economic devastation inflicted by his successor in a mere 44-day tenure.

Mr Johnson and Ms Truss made Britain poorer and sabotaged its reputation as a stable democracy run by serious politicians. That is why, on taking office, Mr Sunak pledged “to lead a government with integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. The country can now decide whether he fulfilled that vow.

But it will also be a verdict on 14 years of Conservative incumbency. Mr Sunak would like voters to distinguish between the administration he has run since 2022 and what came before. In his speech announcing the election on Wednesday, he boasted that economic stability had been restored, as if it were some other party that created the chaos and inflicted the pain for which he advertises himself as the remedy. It is a far-fetched proposition, when most people’s incomes are no higher in real terms now than they were when David Cameron became prime minister, and public services are in substantially worse shape. Opinion polls suggest the public are not fooled.

But choices expressed at the ballot box can be different to views reported in surveys. Mr Sunak plainly hopes that Labour’s lead will soften in the heat of a campaign and that Sir Keir Starmer will be found wanting in some way that sends voters back to the Tory fold. That may be clutching at straws, but it is true that many people will not really have paid much attention to the opposition until now.

Noisy, frenetic election campaigns have a way of illuminating the choices on offer, but also of obscuring fundamental issues. Britain has spent the past 14 years under Conservative prime ministers enacting Conservative policies.

On the doorstep of Downing Street on Wednesday, Mr Sunak could not present his party’s prospectus for a fifth term as anything other than more of the same, only warn that the risk of change is too great. Whatever else happens between now and 4 July, the core question on the day will be whether the country agrees.

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