Keir Starmer hails ‘new age of hope’ as Rishi Sunak fears losing seat

Keir Starmer has hailed a “new age of hope and opportunity” as millions of people prepare to vote in a general election that could deliver the biggest shake-up of British politics in a generation.

The Labour leader said he was “ready for government” and that his intended cabinet would “hit the ground running” if it wins Thursday’s election.

With Rishi Sunak’s closest allies appearing to concede defeat for the Conservatives, and the final opinion polls predicting an unprecedented Labour victory, Starmer said he hoped Britain was about to enter a new chapter.

On the last day of a fractious six-week campaign, the Guardian was told Sunak had confided to members of his inner circle that he was fearful of losing his own seat, and a new YouGov poll predicted 16 cabinet ministers would lose their seats – potentially handing Starmer the biggest majority for any single party since 1832.

Speaking at a campaign stop in Scotland, which will be one of the key battlegrounds on Thursday, Starmer told his activists they were “on the final few yards towards the start of a historic day”.

“This is a great nation, with boundless potential. The British people deserve a government that matches their ambition. Today is the chance to begin the work of rebuilding Britain with Labour.”

He promised a flurry of activity should he enter No 10, saying he would push back the parliamentary recess to get his legislative programme under way.

Starmer said he had told his shadow cabinet they will not be forgiven if did not show results immediately. He said he had told them: “I don’t want you having a phone call or a meeting the day after the election that you could have had six months before the election.”

In a rare sign that he was mentally preparing for victory at the end of a deeply cautious campaign, Starmer said: “I’m really pleased that four and a half years of work is being vindicated because this has not been an easy gig.”

Sunak spent the day campaigning in safe Conservative seats in the south of England. Sources told the Guardian he had privately confided his own vote in Richmond and Northallerton was too close to call.

In 2019, he won the seat with a majority of more than 27,000 and 63% of the vote. One source said “he is genuinely fearful of a defeat in Richmond: the risk that it could be tight has hit him hard. He’s rattled – he can’t quite believe it’s coming so close.”

Leading Tories, including the sacked former home secretary Suella Braverman and the work and pensions secretary, Mel Stride, also made clear that election defeat appeared inevitable.

However, Sunak brushed aside the idea that the Conservatives had already accepted defeat, as he campaigned in ultra-safe Tory seats such as Hamble Valley on the final day before polls opened.

He claimed that “millions and millions” of voters had still not made up their minds, saying people should “separate the frustrations which they understandably have about me, the party and the past” from their ultimate decision.

Quizzed at a school about his highlight as prime minister, Sunak dodged the question, while arguing that much of his time in office had been spent struggling with outside events.

“There are lots of things that you’d like to do but the reality is that you’re dealing with the situation in front of you. That’s very much been the story of my political career in the last few years. That’s just reality. You’ve got to play the cards that you’ve been dealt,” he said.

Asked if he would take full responsibility for whatever the election result was, he replied: “Yes.”

The Tories experienced yet another blow on Wednesday night as the Sun newspaper made an abrupt volte-face, putting its support behind the Labour party for the first time since 2005.

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After years of fiercely critical coverage of Labour and personal attacks on the leader it called “Sir Softie”, the Sun endorsed Starmer on Wednesday, saying: “It is time for a change … Which means that it is time for Labour.”

In Essex, where Reform UK’s leader, Nigel Farage, is making an eighth attempt to enter parliament, the Tory candidate standing in his way made a last-ditch appeal to stop what he described as “the populist juggernaut”.

Farage led a rally in the centre of Clacton in chants of “we want our country back”, as he once again sought to make immigration the centrepiece of his campaign.

“How are you getting on for dentists in Clacton? Well then you should have come by dinghy,” he said, after arriving on a military-style vehicle to the sound of Without Me by Eminem.

Giles Watling, who is defending his Clacton seat, said the atmosphere in the constituency had changed since the arrival en masse of Farage supporters. He described the Reform leader’s rallies as “chilling” and alleged that people had been intimidated by canvassers for the populist party, including a shop owner who, he said, had been told “it wouldn’t be a good idea” if she put up a Tory placard in her window.

Farage was in a bullish mood as he appeared alongside the former boxer Derek Chisora, predicting that Labour would win as much as 37% of the vote and that his party would be “challenging for government” at the next election.

Labour strategists are tense about the prospect for shocks in some unpredictable constituencies, including those where the Reform vote is surging and where Labour is facing a challenge from the Greens or independent candidates campaigning on Gaza.

The party is braced for a number of upsets that go against the grain, including in the shadow culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire’s Bristol Central seat to the Greens and in seats with large Muslim populations, including Birmingham Ladywood, Bethnal Green and Bow, and Dewsbury and Batley. Islington North, where the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is running as an independent, is said by party insiders to be too close to call.

On his final day of a gruelling campaign, Starmer spent time in Wales, Scotland and England, culminating in a rally in the Midlands – another area of the UK where Labour is hoping to take multiple seats from the Conservatives.

In Glasgow, he mocked the Scottish National party for urging voters to vote for them to “send a message” to Westminster. “I don’t want Scotland to send a message, I want Scotland to send a government,” he said. Labour is on course to regain dozens of seats in Scotland from the SNP.

On Wednesday night, the first minister, John Swinney, said it was a foregone conclusion Labour would win. “The only story left in this election is in Scotland, where seats across the country are on a knife-edge,” he said.

But Starmer also warned during the course of the day against paying too much attention to Tories downplaying their own prospects. “You can see what the Tories are up to – they are trying to invite people not to exercise their democratic right to go out and vote, trying to dissuade people from voting,” he said.

“A once-respected party is now saying with 24 hours to go nothing that is positive, everything is negative, effectively, to run a campaign to suppress the vote.”

Writing in the Guardian, Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, promised “change will begin immediately” if Starmer enters No 10 and called on voters to help deliver a significant majority. “We will need a clear mandate for change – don’t doubt that.”

The Liberal Democrats also look as if they will regain the party’s strength of the coalition years, capitalising on Tory decline and tactical voting.

The party’s leader, Ed Davey, whose campaign has been dominated by outlandish stunts, wrote in the Guardian on Wednesday that his mission was “beating as many Conservative MPs as possible … More and more people are focusing on how best to use their vote to bring an end to Conservative rule and start a more progressive, more positive era.”


Updated: Juli 3, 2024 — 11:01 pm

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