Labour tipped to oust Tories as campaigning ends in UK election

Labour leader Keir Starmer fears talk of a Labour 'supermajority' could hit turn-out (Paul ELLIS)
Labour leader Keir Starmer fears talk of a Labour 'supermajority' could hit turn-out (Paul ELLIS)

Britain's political leaders made a frantic push for votes late Wednesday in the last hours of an election campaign expected to return a Labour government after 14 years of Conservative rule.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak insisted in a closing speech to supporters that the contest was "not over", while conceding he was the "underdog". It came hours after a final flurry of polls showed his ruling Tories on course for a record defeat to Labour.

They had suffered a further 11th hour blow when The Sun tabloid -- famous for backing election winners -- endorsed Keir Starmer's Labour.

Polls show his centre-left party set for its first general election win since 2005 -- making Starmer the party's first prime minister since Gordon Brown in 2010.

It would represent a swing leftwards for the UK after almost a decade and-a-half of right-wing Conservative governments, dominated first by austerity, then Brexit and now a cost-of-living crisis.

Starmer, 61, criss-crossed the country in a bid to shore up support and warn against over-confidence in the campaign's remaining hours.

"What I've said to the team is nobody is to be complacent," he told reporters, aboard the same plane that took the England football team to the European Championships in Germany.

Quipping that he hoped it would not be bringing them home anytime soon, Starmer said Labour had been doing "a lot of preparation" for governing.

"We're not going to get a period of time for grace. We're going to start straight away."

- Bigger than Blair? -

Sunak, 44, sought to hammer home his oft-repeated warnings that a Labour government would mean tax rises and weaker national security -- jibes that Labour has branded "desperate".

The Tories also stepped up their warnings over the perils of Labour winning a "supermajority", which its rival fears is intended to hit turnout.

Senior minister and Sunak ally Mel Stride said Wednesday the electorate would "regret" handing Labour "untrammelled" power without an effective Tory opposition.

Ex-PM Boris Johnson -- ousted by his own colleagues, including Sunak, in 2022 -- staged his first major intervention of the campaign Tuesday, urging people not to see the result as a "foregone conclusion".

Sunak reiterated the message at a last event 24 hours later in Hampshire, southern England.

"It is not over until the final whistle blows, my friends, and I can also tell you that this underdog will fight to that final whistle," he told supporters.

Labour has enjoyed consistent double-digit poll leads over the past two years, with many voters dissatisfied at the Conservatives' handling of various issues including public services, immigration and the economy.

Several surveys predict Labour will win more than the record 418 seats it secured when ex-leader Tony Blair ended 18 years of Conservative rule in 1997.

Labour requires at least 326 seats to secure a majority in the 650-seat parliament.

- 'Change' -

Voters head to the polls from 7:00 am (0600 GMT) Thursday, with results expected from around 2230 GMT into Friday morning.

The vote is Britain's first July election since 1945, when Labour under Clement Attlee defeated the Conservatives of World War II leader Winston Churchill, ushering in a period of transformational social change.

Attlee's government created the modern welfare state, including the state-run National Health Service (NHS), Britain's most cherished institution after the royal family.

Starmer's "change" agenda is not so radical this time around and promises cautious management of the economy, as part of a long-term growth plan that includes nursing battered public services back to health.

A Labour government would face a formidable to-do list, ranging from spurring anaemic growth to ending NHS strikes and improving post-Brexit ties with Europe.

Some voters simply eye a respite from politics after a chaotic period of five prime ministers, a succession of scandals and Tory infighting between centrists and right-wingers that shows no sign of abating.

Endorsing Labour, The Sun called the Conservatives a "divided rabble, more interested in fighting themselves than running the country", adding: "It is time for a change."

Starmer -- the working-class son of a tool maker and a nurse -- lacks the political charisma or popularity of Blair, who presided over that last Labour victory in 2005.

But the former human rights lawyer and chief public prosecutor stands to gain from a country fed up with the Tories, and a feeling of national decline.

Arch-Eurosceptic Nigel Farage hopes the discontent will see him elected an MP at the eighth time of trying, while the Liberal Democrats are expected to gain dozens of seats.