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British prime minister warns of ‘axis of authoritarian states’ in pre-election speech

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LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak warned of a dangerous future for the U.K. in a pitch to voters Monday as he fights to hang on to power ahead of a national election that could see Conservatives ousted after 14 years.

Sunak’s speech repeatedly attacked Labour leader Keir Starmer, saying he lacked plans to deal with security risks from what he described as an “axis of authoritarian states” that he named as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

Sunak said his pledge to increase military spending to 2.5% of gross domestic product by 2030 better positions his party to confront that threat. The war in Ukraine, Iranian proxies attacking ships in the Red Sea and Chinese cyberattacks aimed at members of Parliament are some of those risks, he said.

“Over the next few years, from our democracy to our society to our economy to the hardest questions of war and peace, almost every aspect of our lives is going to change,” Sunak said. “How we act in the face of those changes, not only to keep people safe and secure but to realize the opportunities too, will determine whether or not Britain will succeed in the years to come.”

His speech at Policy Exchange, a conservative think tank, came just over a week after his party was rocked in local elections and ahead of a general election in which Labour is widely seen as likely to win control of Parliament.

Starmer said Sunak’s speech was the seventh time he’s reset his agenda in 18 months. He rejected the suggestion that he would be weak on defense, saying his top priority is national security and he has relevant experience as the former head prosecutor for England and Wales.

“This government talks about national security, but what’s its record? It has hollowed out our armed forces, it has wasted billions of pounds on procurement,” Starmer said. “It’s a choice between a changed Labour Party that puts the country first and party second or continuing with this government, the chaos and division that’s been going on for so long.”

Sunak has until Dec. 17 to call an election that will take place 25 working days later. He has said he would do so in the second half of the year but has refused to say when, as opponents repeated calls for him to name a date

“This Conservative government is out of touch and out of time and Rishi Sunak must do the right thing and give the people a general election,” Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said.

Sunak said Labour was trying to “depress their way to victory” with “scaremongering about pensions.”

“They have just one thing: a calculation that they can make you feel so bad about your country that you won’t have the energy to ask what they might do with the incredible power that they seek to yield,” Sunak said.

Sunak acknowledged public uncertainty and anxiety but said some of that was due to global upheavals such as the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that despite “storms ahead,” Britain could feel proud and confident again as “transformational technologies” such as artificial intelligence could bring progress.

“Technologies like AI will do for the 21st century what the steam engine and electricity did for the 19th,” he said.

Associated Press