Sunak and Starmer hit UK campaign trail after shock election call

Britain’s Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party, Rishi Sunak waves as he arrives to speak at a general election campaign event at the ExCeL in east London, on May 22, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 23 May 2024
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Sunak and Starmer hit UK campaign trail after shock election call

  • Sunak’s Conservatives have trailed Labour by around 20 percentage points in opinion polls since he became PM in Oct. 2022
  • Sunak has shocked and angered many in his party when he gambled by calling a July 4 election, months earlier than expected

LONDON: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Labour Party rival Keir Starmer kicked off their election campaigns on Thursday, each arguing that only they can snap the country out of its economic and political malaise.
Sunak, whose Conservatives have trailed Labour by around 20 percentage points in opinion polls since he became prime minister in October 2022, shocked and angered many in his party when he gambled by calling a July 4 election, months earlier than expected.
He argued on Thursday that the economy was turning a corner and he had a plan to tackle illegal immigration. But with prices in the shops up 21 percent in the last three years and the national health service buckling under record waiting times, it may be hard to persuade voters that Britain is on the right track.
“Even though there’s more work to do and I know it will take time for you to see the benefits, the plan is working,” Sunak told voters at an event with workers in central England.
The former investment banker announced his decision in the pouring rain in Downing Street on Wednesday, having to shout over protesters blaring the song “Things Can Only Get Better” — an anthem associated with Labour’s crushing 1997 election victory under Tony Blair that ended the last long period of Conservative rule.
Sunak also admitted on Thursday that the first flights sending illegal migrants to Rwanda, a flagship policy that is tangled in legal challenges, would not start before the vote.
He did receive one boost, however, when Nigel Farage, a former Brexit campaigner, said he would not seek election for Reform, likely blunting the appeal of the right-wing party and reducing its ability eat into the Conservatives voter base.
At stake is control of the world’s sixth largest economy which has endured years of low growth and high inflation, is still battling to make a success of its 2016 decision to leave the European Union, and is slowly recovering from twin shocks of COVID-19 and an energy price spike caused by the war in Ukraine.
That backdrop makes the economy one of the most important electoral battlegrounds. The two parties are also likely to focus on migration, defense, health and security.
POLITICAL TURMOIL
Polls show voters want change, even if they are not hugely enthused by Starmer and his Labour Party, after 14 years of Conservative government marked by unprecedented levels of political turmoil and so-called culture war issues.
Coffee shop worker Kitty McMurray, on her way to work, said the country needed an election because it felt like everything was falling apart. “Bring it on,” the 29-year-old said.
Starmer told voters at an event in Gillingham, southeast England, that he wanted to renew, rebuild and reinvigorate Britain. He focused on deprivation and the invisible barriers that prevent many from improving their lot.
Referencing children who live in inner-city areas where big corporations such as Google have a presence, he said: “they cannot imagine themselves ever making that journey from their school to those jobs. It’s a few hundred yards.”
Starmer is the country’s former chief prosecutor who has pulled Labour’s politics back to the center ground after it lurched to the left under his predecessor.
Were Labour to win, Starmer would become Britain’s sixth prime minister in eight years, the highest turnover since the 1830s, underscoring the level of turmoil that has gripped a country once known for its political stability and pragmatism.
While the electioneering gets underway, activity in parliament is expected to pick up too as the government works out which of the pieces of legislation currently in process will be rushed through, and which will fall by the wayside.
Laws currently under discussion include Sunak’s plan to impose some of the world’s strictest anti-smoking rules by banning anyone aged 15 and under from ever buying cigarettes.
With Sunak calling the election earlier than the October or November that most had expected, all parties were also racing to line up enough candidates to contest every seat.


UK’s Sunak faces call for election date betting probe

Updated 4 sec ago
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UK’s Sunak faces call for election date betting probe

  • London’s Metropolitan Police said it was told by the Gambling Commission that a close protection officer was being investigated over the alleged bets
LONDON: UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faced calls on Thursday to launch an inquiry after a member of his security detail was arrested for allegedly betting on the timing of the general election.
London’s Metropolitan Police said it was told by the Gambling Commission that a close protection officer was being investigated over the alleged bets.
The regulator had already been looking into claims that Conservative party candidate Craig Williams, who served as Sunak’s ministerial aide, placed a bet on when the election would be held.
A second candidate from Sunak’s party, Laura Saunders, is now also under investigation about an alleged bet on the date of the poll, the BBC reported on Wednesday evening.
Saunders is married to the Tories’ director of campaigns, the broadcaster added.
The Conservative party confirmed that the commission had contacted it about “a small number of individuals,” without commenting further.
Senior minister Michael Gove told the BBC Thursday he could not comment on the specific allegations but said the “broad principle” of using inside information to place bets was “reprehensible.”
The deputy leader of the smaller opposition Liberal Democrats, Daisy Cooper, urged Sunak to order an inquiry.
“This stinks of yet more sleaze, and answers are needed. An inquiry is needed to understand who knew what and when,” she added.


Sunak announced that a general election would be held on July 4, taking his own party by surprise as he still had six months to call a vote.
The Tories are expected to be dumped out of office after 14 years in office, with polls consistently putting the main opposition Labour party some 20 points ahead.
Two polls published on Wednesday predicted a record win for Labour, eclipsing even the landslide win for former leader Tony Blair in 1997, and a historic drubbing for the Tories.
Pollsters YouGov said the Conservatives — the party of Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill — could slump to their “lowest seat tally in the party’s almost 200-year history.”
As well as criticism of Sunak’s decision to go early, the Tory campaign has been widely criticized for a series of gaffes, including a photocall in Belfast near where the doomed Titanic was built.
Sunak’s own already dire personal ratings were also hit after he left an international event to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day early.
The Met said the officer, a member of the force’s Royalty and Specialist Protection Command, was no longer on operational duties.
The officer was taken into custody on Monday on suspicion of misconduct in a public office, then released on bail pending further inquiries.
A referral has been made to the Independent Office for Police Conduct, the watchdog confirmed.
The allegations against Williams came to light last week. He is alleged to have placed a £100 ($127) bet on a July date for the election three days before Sunak called the vote.
Sunak and other party leaders, including Labour’s Keir Starmer, take part in another pre-election television grilling later on Thursday.

EU states agree on 14th sanctions package against Russia, diplomats say

Updated 52 sec ago
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EU states agree on 14th sanctions package against Russia, diplomats say

  • Europe is still buying Russian gas itself, and trans-shipments via EU ports to Asia represent only around 10 percent of total Russian LNG exports

BRUSSELS: European Union countries agreed on a 14th package of sanctions against Russia over its war in Ukraine, diplomats said on Thursday, including a ban on re-exports of Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) in EU waters.
Belgium, which holds the rotating EU presidency until July 1, said on the X platform that the package “maximizes the impact of existing sanctions by closing loopholes.”
Countries debated the new measures for over a month and ultimately watered down one of the Commission’s proposals, aimed at preventing even more circumvention, at Germany’s prompting.
The dropped measure would have forced subsidiaries of EU companies in third countries to contractually prohibit the re-exports of their goods to Russia. The EU is keen to stop the flow of dual-use technology such as washing machine chips that could be used by Russia for military purposes.
An EU diplomat said Germany had asked for an impact assessment, and the measure could be included at a later date.
The ban on trans-shipments is the first restriction the bloc has applied to LNG. However, gas market experts say the measure will have little impact as Europe is still buying Russian gas itself, and trans-shipments via EU ports to Asia represent only around 10 percent of total Russian LNG exports.
The package also tightens measures against the shadow fleet moving Russian oil outside the price cap on Russian crude set by the Group of Seven (G7) nations. EU countries added tankers to the list of sanctioned entities as well as at least two Russian-owned ships moving military equipment from North Korea, diplomats said.
Moscow and Pyongyang have grown closer since Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This week, the two countries agreed to provide immediate military assistance if either faces armed aggression in a pact reached after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Pyongyang.
Overall, 47 new entities and 69 individuals were added to the EU sanctions list, bringing the total to 2,200. The package is expected to be formally approved when EU foreign ministers meet on Monday, diplomats said. (Reporting by Julia Payne; editing by Kevin Liffey and Mark Heinrich)


Malaysian leader Anwar says China a ‘true friend’ and not to be feared as Premier Li ends visit

Updated 3 min 38 sec ago
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Malaysian leader Anwar says China a ‘true friend’ and not to be feared as Premier Li ends visit

  • His words will be welcomed by China’s leadership, which finds itself increasingly at odds with countries from the Philippines to Japan as it grows as a regional power in Asia

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on Thursday rejected the notion that China’s dominance is to be feared, calling China a “true friend” at the end of Premier Li Qiang’s visit to mark 50 years of diplomatic ties between their countries.
While the leaders raised some contentious bilateral issues, Anwar said they discussed them as “equal partners, as trusted friends.” He didn’t give details but was likely referring to the prickly issue of overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“People say, well, Malaysia is a growing economy. Don’t let China abuse its privilege and extort from the country. I said no. To the contrary, we want to benefit from one another, we want to learn from one another and we want to profit from this engagement,” Anwar told some 200 business leaders at a luncheon attended by Li.
His words will be welcomed by China’s leadership, which finds itself increasingly at odds with countries from the Philippines to Japan as it grows as a regional power in Asia. During his visit, Li held up what he called the “friendship” between China and Malaysia as a positive example for country-to-country relations in the region.
Anwar said he rebuked the “incessant propaganda that we should cast aspersions and fear the dominance of China economically, militarily, technologically.”
“We do not. We in Malaysia, having a neutral stance, have the resolve to work with all countries and with China,” he said. “We see Premier Li Qiang as a friend that would work together with us.”
Li, who is China’s No. 2 leader after President Xi Jinping, was the first Chinese premier to visit Malaysia since 2015. He flew in for a three-day visit on Tuesday on the last leg of a regional tour. Li was also the first Chinese premier to visit New Zealand and then Australia in seven years.
The two leaders on Wednesday agreed that China and other claimant countries in Southeast Asia should tackle the South China Sea dispute “independently and properly” through dialogue and cooperation, and via bilateral settlement.
No details were given but the statement came amid concerns the dispute could escalate tensions between the US and China. The US renewed a warning Tuesday that it is obligated to defend treaty ally Philippines, after Chinese forces seized two Philippine boats delivering food and supplies to a military outpost in a disputed shoal and injured several Filipino navy personnel.
Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan all dispute Beijing’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea. Malaysia’s government prefers diplomatic channels and rarely criticizes Beijing publicly, even though Chinese coast guard ships have sailed near Malaysia’s waters. This is partly to protect economic ties as China has been Malaysia’s top trading partner since 2009. Bilateral trade surged to $98.8 billion last year, accounting for 17 percent of Malaysia’s global trade.
At the luncheon, Li urged businesses to expand cooperation in emerging fields such as green development, digital economy and artificial intelligence.
“The journey of China and Malaysia over the past 50 years... is like an expedition where two people have joined hands and waded through mountains and rivers, and won a milestone full of achievements. It also marks the official beginning of the next journey full of hope,” Li said.
Li was given a red carpet ceremonial send-off and an honor guard as he departed for home later Thursday.
The two countries renewed a five-year trade and economic cooperation pact on Wednesday and inked a rash of pacts to cooperate in various sectors.
The Trade Ministry said 11 more memorandums were signed between Malaysian and Chinese entities on Thursday that could bring in potential investment of 13.2 billion ringgit ($2.8 billion). These included proposed collaborations in high value-added sector such as oil and gas, energy, education, agriculture, automotive and utility services, it said in a statement.
A joint statement by the two governments Thursday said China will extend visa-free travel for Malaysian tourists until end-2025, while Malaysia will reciprocate with a longer period until end-2026.
It said the two countries will also jointly nominate the lion dance, a cultural dance performed during Lunar New Year and festivals, to be on the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. About a quarter of Malaysia’s 33 million people are ethnic Chinese.


Russian air strike causes more damage to Ukraine’s power grid

Updated 20 June 2024
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Russian air strike causes more damage to Ukraine’s power grid

  • The attacks have knocked out half Ukraine’s energy generating capacity since March
  • Ukrainian air force said it shot down five out of nine missiles and all 27 drones launched by Russia over 10 Ukrainian regions

KYIV: Russia launched a new barrage of missiles and drones at Ukraine in the early hours of Thursday, causing “significant” damage to a thermal power plant and maintaining pressure on the electricity grid, Ukrainian officials said.
The attack on energy infrastructure in four regions damaged equipment, wounded seven workers and cut off electricity to more than 218,000 consumers, the energy ministry said.
The attacks have knocked out half Ukraine’s energy generating capacity since March and forced rolling blackouts, Kyiv says. Moscow says energy facilities are a legitimate military target and that some of the strikes were retaliation for Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory.
Officials in Kyiv have for months been appealing to Ukraine’s allies to supply more air defenses against the air strikes carried out by Russia throughout the nearly 28-month-old full-scale invasion.
The Ukrainian air force said it shot down five out of nine missiles and all 27 drones launched by Russia over 10 Ukrainian regions during Thursday’s attack.
Despite the military’s readout, private power company DTEK said one of its thermal power plants suffered significant damage from the drone attack. The strikes, it said, amounted to the seventh large-scale attack on its infrastructure since March 22.
National grid operator Ukrenergo said the attack would lead to an increase in the quantity of scheduled blackouts on Thursday.
The military said the attack mostly targeted eastern Ukraine and in particular the Dnipropetrovsk region.
The region’s governor said five drones and four missiles were shot down over the region. Three men were wounded in the attack, which also damaged seven homes, he said.
Serhiy Popko, head of Kyiv’s military administration, said air defenses shot down all incoming aerial targets on their approach to the capital, and no damage or injuries were reported in the city.
Air defenses also downed four drones over the central region of Vinnytsia, where debris damaged a critical infrastructure object, the regional governor said without identifying it.


‘Nature’s mirror’: Climate change batters Albania’s butterflies

Updated 20 June 2024
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‘Nature’s mirror’: Climate change batters Albania’s butterflies

VLORA: Bright yellow, black, red and blue, Alexanor butterflies once fluttered abundantly on southwestern Albania’s flowery slopes. Now, like many related species, scientists say they are disappearing due to human impacts, including climate change.
Increasingly absent from the picturesque district of Zvernec, the Alexanor is one of 58 of the Balkan country’s 207 butterfly species that researchers say are at risk.
“Sensitive to changes, they are a true mirror of the conditions of the ecosystem in which they live,” said Anila Paparisto, an entomologist at Tirana University.
In Zvernec, Paparisto leads a team of researchers and students working to identify the country’s remaining butterfly species along with those that are now extinct.
Numerous scientific studies have measured the impact of climate change on butterfly populations, though researchers also cite other environmental factors.
They blame a combination of rapid urbanization, pesticides and warming temperatures for the decrease.
“Human activity and climate change have had major impacts on nature,” said biology student Fjona Skenderi, who was helping conduct research in Zvernec.
In the nearby Divjaka Natural Park, Albanian agronomist Altin Hila points to the disappearance of the Giant Peacock Moth and the Plain Tiger as another worrying sign.
“It’s a disaster marked by climatic disruptions, an early spring and excessively high temperatures in January and February,” explained Hila, who is also a passionate collector and oversees a butterfly museum in Divjaka.
“It encouraged the eggs to hatch and the butterfly larvae to grow, but in April the temperatures were too low” for them to survive, he added.


The butterflies’ decline also affects other species.
“It will impact the entire food chain and biodiversity, which is also essential for humans,” Paparisto said.
“When there are fewer butterflies, you expect... the butterfly effect.”
Like large swaths of Albania, coastal areas near Zvernec have become increasingly overrun with resorts and apartment blocks, built with little oversight.
Scientists say the rapid urbanization in the area, along with overfishing and climate change, has also played a part in the dramatic drop in migratory bird populations.
And while some butterfly populations are in decline, other similar species are prospering — to the detriment of the environment.
The arrival of a non-native moth through imports of ornamental plants from China has ravaged more than 80 percent of Albania’s boxwood forests since 2019, according to experts.
“It is very aggressive, it can reproduce three to four times a year, and it is a real misfortune which reduces entire areas to nothing,” said forest engineer Avdulla Diku.
With their distinct neon green and black bodies, the larvae are easily spotted when clinging to the boxwoods’ leaves and stems.
On the road along Lake Ohrid to Pogradec in northwestern Albania, the once vibrant green rows of boxwoods are reduced to husks after being devoured by the moths’ larvae.
“It is a firm reminder of the fragility and subtle balance of the environment in which we live,” said Sylvain Cuvelier, an entomological researcher who co-authored the first Albanian butterfly atlas.
“It is obviously urgent to unite our efforts to find solutions, to rethink in depth our use of natural resources and the way forward for the protection and restoration of our environment.”