What happened this week in the UK election campaign, from more betting slips to the last debate

LONDON — The U.K. general election on July 4 is just days away now, no doubt to the relief of the party leaders who have crisscrossed the country in a grueling month of campaigning.

This campaign doesn’t seem to have shifted the political dial much, if at all, with the left-of-center Labour Party still the clear favorite to defeat the Conservatives of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and return to power for the first time in 14 years.

If the polls are broadly accurate — and even the Tories have acknowledged their likely defeat — then Labour leader Keir Starmer will at some point on July 5 be driven to meet King Charles III at Buckingham Palace in order to get the go-ahead to form a government.

The Conservatives’ campaign, already lacklustre, was beset this week by growing claims about election betting.

The investigation into widespread betting on the date and outcome of the general election by figures connected with Sunak is still rumbling on.

For general elections in the U.K., there’s a market to predict the date of the vote. Unlike most other democracies, that decision rests solely in the hands of the prime minister. In the United States, for example, everyone knows that the presidential and congressional elections will take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

People close to Sunak within the Conservative Party ranks and even police officers connected with his protection have been caught up in the inquiry.

Reports suggest the total number of parliamentary candidates and officials could be 15. The Gambling Commission, the industry’s regulator, hasn’t confirmed the numbers involved. But it has said it has made “rapid progress” and will continue to work closely with London’s Metropolitan Police force, which is also investigating the actions of seven of its officers.

Whatever the number, it’s a tawdry affair and has highlighted a culture of betting at Parliament. And not just on the date.

Starmer suspended a Labour candidate this week too — for betting against himself in the coming election.

There were more debates again. Luckily, it’s fair to say, there are no more.

When the U.K. finally had its first debate between leaders in the 2010 general election, there was the novelty factor. This year, it’s often felt like there’s been a debate every other day — for soccer fans, there’s at least been the European Championship from Germany to provide alternative viewing, however disappointing England and Scotland have been.

The latest, and the last, debate aired on the BBC on Wednesday evening, and both Sunak and Starmer repeated the things that they’ve been saying for weeks. A Labour government, according to Sunak, will lead to higher taxes, while Starmer said now was the time for change.

Perhaps the biggest round of applause came from neither of them. That was reserved for audience member Robert Blackstock.

“Are you two really the best we’ve got to be the next prime minister of our great country?” he asked.

Whoever is prime minister come next Friday, it’s clear that’s the economic backdrop won’t be the easiest, given the dual impact of the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

But many experts have said that the two main parties haven’t been entirely truthful in their manifestos about the challenges to come.

“Regardless of who takes office following the general election, they will — unless they get lucky — soon face a stark choice,” said Paul Johnson, director of the well respected Institute for Fiscal Studies. “Raise taxes by more than they have told us in their manifesto. Or implement cuts to some areas of spending. Or borrow more and be content for debt to rise for longer.”

Luck is probably the most undervalued political commodity, and that’s why many Conservatives were clearly against Sunak’s decision to call an early election — he could’ve waited until January.

And there are signs that the economy is improving, though not being felt by the voters after years of duress. Official figures showed that the U.K. economy grew by 0.7% in the first quarter of the year from the previous three-month period — more than most leading economies.

Had Sunak waited, it is argued, voters may have started to feel better about their situation — to the potential benefit of the Tories.

A few hours after the polls close at 10 p.m. local time on Thursday, the overall result of the election will be known.

In fact, the first constituency results will likely be known before the clock strikes midnight. It’s a race that many constituencies take seriously. Blyth and Ashington is expected to be the first to announce its result at around 11:30 p.m., closely followed by nearby Houghton and Sunderland South.

But it’s a race and there will be bragging rights between the neighbors.

Whoever wins that race, Labour remains favorite to win the most seats in the 650-seat House of Commons. While major pollsters give varying figures, all show a double-digit Labour lead, with relatively little change since Sunak called the election in the rain on May 22.

Starmer is about 40 to 1 odds on to become prime minister. That’s not much of a bet — one would need to put on 40 pounds to get one pound in return!

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