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Brits are poised to punish ruling Conservatives in tomorrow's vote, polls show

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Anyone remember this voice from British politics a few years ago?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BORIS JOHNSON: Take this country out of the European Union.

SHAPIRO: What about these headlines from London?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Bank of England is taking emergency action to try to calm the turmoil in the financial markets.

SHAPIRO: That was then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, followed by a report about his successor, Prime Minister Liz Truss, whose budget sent markets into such turmoil that she lasted just 49 days in office. Incidentally, her tenure was compared to the shelf life of a head of lettuce. There was a webcam. It was a whole thing.

Well, tomorrow is election day in the U.K. - again. Many British voters have not forgotten those prior things, and polls show they are poised to punish ruling conservatives for them. NPR's London correspondent Lauren Frayer is covering the election. Hey, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What is about to happen to the conservatives that have ruled the country for many years now?

FRAYER: So some polls say they could lose up to three-quarters of their seats in Parliament. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hasn't been able to cast off these scandals of the past that you mentioned. His conservative party is expected to face a drubbing tomorrow. The center-left Labour Party is forecast to win in a landslide. And Sunak could actually be the first sitting prime minister to ever lose his own seat in Parliament.

SHAPIRO: You are describing something so much bigger than just losing an election. Is this, like, total wipeout? Could the Conservative Party cease to exist?

FRAYER: Conservative Party members are calling this existential. They will certainly retain some seats in Parliament. They probably will not be the biggest party - might not even be the second-biggest party, the main opposition party. This is significant because the conservatives have dominated British politics for more than a century. This is the party of Margaret Thatcher. It calls itself the natural party of government. I talked to Rory Stewart. He's a former conservative MP and cabinet minister, and I asked how his former colleagues are doing.

RORY STEWART: They're in a state of complete despair because it's almost entirely the fault of the conservatives. Labour is not very popular. This is an election that the conservatives have lost rather than Labour have won.

FRAYER: He is a centrist who actually quit the party because he says it's moved too far to the right.

SHAPIRO: It's not only shocking that this transformation might be about to happen in the U.K., but the rest of Europe seems to be going the other direction. Like, the far right just did really well in France.

FRAYER: Totally. So I asked that question to John Burn-Murdoch. He's the chief data reporter at the Financial Times. Brexit absorbed some of that antiestablishment anger here that has fueled far-right parties elsewhere.

JOHN BURN-MURDOCH: In all these other countries, the radical right is a sort of noisy voice but has never been tested in power, whereas Brexit in the U.K. is seen on some level as radical right politics having been implemented. And people can now see - hmm - maybe that wasn't such a good idea after all.

FRAYER: By the way, there is a far-right party here. It's called the Reform U.K. Party, led by Nigel Farage. You might remember him as this sort of rabble-rouser, leading Brexiteer.

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah.

FRAYER: He has tried and failed seven times to win a seat in Parliament. He looks likely to win a seat tomorrow. His anti-immigrant party is drawing voters away from the Conservatives - so actually splitting the right-wing vote.

SHAPIRO: So if the election is a very bad day for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Tory Party, who's it going to be a good day for? Who's going to win?

FRAYER: Keir Starmer of the Labour Party - he looks likely to be the next U.K. prime minister. He just got an endorsement today from The Sun, which is a sort of notoriously right-wing tabloid that is very popular and, for what it's worth, has actually correctly predicted every election winner.

Starmer is a human rights lawyer, a prosecutor. He has a reputation, though, for being kind of boring. His personal approval ratings aren't very high. I talked to Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, and she says, in the end...

POLLY TOYNBEE: Boring looks quite good after Boris and Liz Truss, I think, to a lot of people - somebody who's going manage things in a sober and sensible way.

FRAYER: Now, the wild card Ari, though, is turnout. Starmer doesn't want all of these polls predicting a landslide to prevent people from bothering to get out and vote for him. And if he does win, his honeymoon will be brief. He inherits a country that has been hobbled by years of austerity. Government coffers are near-empty. There is an appetite for real change here, but there are questions about how much things actually will change under Starmer.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in London. Have fun. We'll be listening to your coverage tomorrow.

FRAYER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.