(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak called a surprise UK general election for July 4, with the prime minister battling a Downing Street downpour and protesters to set his Conservative Party up for a bruising six-week battle to try to stop Keir Starmer’s poll-leading opposition Labour Party from taking power.

“Now is the moment for Britain to choose its future,” Sunak said in a statement that tried to frame the UK as a nation emerging from economic shocks that should stick with him rather than gambling on a new leader. “I cannot and will not claim that we have got everything right — no government should.”

Moments after the drenched premier returned indoors, Starmer took aim at Sunak and the Tories’ 14 years in office. He promised to boost ailing public services, and economic growth. “Together we can stop the chaos, we can turn the page, we can start to rebuild Britain and change our country,” he said.

Rumors that Sunak was prepared to trigger an earlier-than-expected vote began to gather pace throughout the day, especially as his senior team refused to engage. The prime minister had been widely expected to wait until the autumn — the deadline was January — to allow more time for a cost-of-living crisis to recede before Britons cast their ballots. 

Instead, the Tories will now try to convince voters that the worst is behind them, and that recent data — including Wednesday’s decline in inflation to 2.3% — are evidence that they should, as Sunak and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt often put it, “stick with the plan.” 

Few expect them to succeed, with Labour holding a poll lead of about 20 points that Sunak has been unable to shift since he took over from Liz Truss in late 2022. The turmoil of that era will be weaponized by Starmer’s party during the campaign, as will surveys like the one YouGov published Wednesday showing 71% of voters have a negative view of Sunak.

Sunak’s decision clearly took his own party by surprise. Tory members of Parliament including Tracey Crouch and Dehenna Davison expressed disappointment on social media at not having more time in Parliament.

In a sign of the pressure his team is under, one minister said the party had been gearing up for an autumn vote and questioned the wisdom of going to the polls when they Tories are so far behind Labour. A cabinet minister, meanwhile, suggested Sunak had merely decided he didn’t want to do the job anymore.

“The British electorate, as the polls proved, aren’t listening to the Conservatives,” said Steven Fielding, emeritus professor at the University of Nottingham. “They’ve wanted this election for quite some time. And so in some ways, going a bit earlier than people thought might be the only way that you can get any kind of positive response.”

For Labour, the challenge is to convert a prolonged period of poll dominance — which has delivered a string of local, mayoral and parliamentary election victories in recent years — into a win in the one that matters. Defeat in the last general election in 2019 under former leader Jeremy Corbyn means Starmer needs the biggest turnaround in the postwar era to get back into power.

Read more: Labour’s Prospects Hinge On Winning Over Older, Richer Voters

Even so, the pressure is intense on Starmer to not only win but to emulate totemic former leader Tony Blair by building a legacy for Labour in power.

As the rain fell on Sunak, his speech was at times drowned out by protesters playing Things Can Only Get Better, the D-Ream song that became something of a Labour anthem after Blair used it before his 1997 election landslide.

Labour has been in campaign mode for some time, and last week rolled out the six pledges Starmer will build his campaign around, including boosting the economy, reducing National Health Service waiting lists, recruiting more teachers, tackling crime and investing in green technology.

It’s a policy platform that ensures a key focus of election campaigning will be on the economy, where the Tories traditionally try to claim the upper hand. But the picture has changed dramatically in British politics, and it is now Starmer’s party that polls suggest voters trust more to deliver growth.

“A vote for Labour is a vote for stability: economic and political,” Starmer said.

Tory officials have been trying to argue that Labour’s poll lead is soft and that the ruling party still has a narrow path to victory. In the aftermath of local and mayoral elections this month that were dominated by Starmer’s party, Sunak nevertheless said the results pointed to a hung Parliament in a general election rather than an outright majority for Labour.

In his statement, Sunak echoed his recent attack line against Starmer, saying the UK would be less safe on his watch. “This election will take place at a time when the world is more dangerous than since the end of the Cold War,” he said.

Tory strategists see the economy and a tough stance on migration as favorable battle lines against Labour, especially if the prime minister can get his plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda up and running in the coming weeks.

Yet other parts of his speech betrayed the reality of the polls. He recalled his record as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Covid-19 pandemic, launching huge fiscal stimulus and keeping Britons in jobs. He’s never been as popular since.

In many ways, Sunak has been attempting to repeat the trick, swapping in tax cuts in the place of stimulus in search of a pre-election feel-good factor. But the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday pulled the rug from under the government’s plans to do more tax cuts in the autumn, warning the UK Treasury needs to find £30 billion ($38 billion) of savings to stabilize its debt burden.

It’s why the decision to call an early vote now looks less like a strategy for a surprise win than a defensive measure to get in before the Conservative Party’s popularity plunges even further. The tax cuts haven’t even moved the polls, as voters cotton on to Labour warnings that the Tories are trying to usher in a new era of austerity that the new administration would be forced to impose.

Read more: Keir Starmer Battles Dire State of UK in Bid to Emulate Blair

Sunak now risks eschewing key moments for his own political legacy, not least the two-year anniversary of taking office in late October.

“This just looks like an election for Labour to win,” John Curtice, professor of politics at University of Strathclyde, said on the BBC.

--With assistance from Alex Wickham, Asad Zulfiqar, Charles Capel and Louise Moon.

(Updates with Starmer comment in third paragraph, Tory ministers in seventh paragraph.)

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