LONDON, May 23 (AP) — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday set July 4 as the date for a national election that will determine who governs the U.K., as his divided and demoralized Conservative Party faces its biggest challenge to its 14-year rule.

“Now is the moment for Britain to choose its future,” Sunak said in an announcement that took many people who expected a fall election by surprise. He spoke on a day of good economic news, hoping to remind wavering voters of one relative success of his time in office.

But Sunak was drenched by heavy rain outside the prime minister’s residence, and his announcement was nearly drowned out by protesters blasting “Things Can Only Get Better,” a rival Labour campaign song from the Tony Blair era.

Sunak’s center-right party has seen its support dwindle steadily. It has struggled to overcome a series of crises including an economic slump, ethics scandals and a revolving door of leaders in the past two years.

The center-left Labour Party is strongly favored in the election. Labour leader Keir Starmer said his party would bring stability.

“Together we can stop the chaos, we can turn the page, we can start to rebuild Britain and change our country,” Starmer said.

Bookies and pollsters rank Sunak as a long shot to stay in power. But he said he would “fight for every vote.”

The election will be held against the backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis and deep divisions over how to deal with migrants and asylum seekers making risky English Channel crossings from Europe.

Sunak stressed his credentials as the leader who saved millions of jobs with support payments during the COVID-19 pandemic and got the economy under control. He said the election would be about “how and who you trust to turn that foundation into a secure future.”

The announcement came the same day official figures showed inflation in the U.K. had fallen sharply to 2.3%, its lowest level in nearly three years on the back of big declines in domestic bills.

The drop in April marks the greatest progress to date on five pledges Sunak made in January 2023, including halving inflation, which had climbed to above 11% at the end of 2022. Sunak hailed the new figure as evidence his plan was working.

“Today marks a major moment for the economy, with inflation back to normal,” Sunak said ahead of the election announcement. “Brighter days are ahead, but only if we stick to the plan to improve economic security and opportunity for everyone.”

Voters across the United Kingdom will choose all 650 members of the House of Commons for a term of up to five years. The party that commands a majority in the Commons, either alone or in coalition, will form the next government and its leader will be prime minister.

Starmer, a former chief prosecutor for England and Wales, is the current favorite. The party’s momentum has built since it dealt the Conservatives heavy losses in local elections earlier this month.

The Conservatives have also lost a series of special elections for seats in Parliament this year, and two of its lawmakers recently defected to Labour.

Lorraine Chase, a well-known British actress who was visiting Parliament, said she thought Labour is headed for victory because the country faces big problems and people want to send the Conservatives packing.

“They just want the Tories out,” said Chase, 72. “I don’t really know what someone else coming in can really help. It took years to get in this mess. It will take years to get out.”

Following on his party’s successes in the local elections, Starmer, 61, last week announced a platform focused on economic stability as he tries to win over disillusioned voters.

He also pledged to improve border security, recruit more teachers and police and reduce lengthy waiting lists at hospitals and doctors′ clinics.

Elections in the U.K. have to be held no more than five years apart, but the prime minister can choose the timing within that period. Sunak, 44, had until December to call an election. The last one was in December 2019.

Many political analysts had anticipated that a fall election would give Conservatives a better chance of maintaining power. That’s because economic conditions may improve further, voters could feel the effect of recent tax cuts, interest rates may come down and a controversial plan to deport some asylum-seekers to Rwanda — a key policy for Sunak — could take flight.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said some voters might give Sunak credit for gambling on an early election because it makes him look strong and bold rather than weak and indecisive. But he said voters care about the fundamentals.

“And those fundamentals don’t look particularly good for the prime minister,” Bale said. “The economy, whatever he says, is still fairly weak. Growth is fairly anemic. Inflation has come down, but it’s still there ... (and) public services are in trouble.”

Ed Glenn, who was outside Parliament, suggested that Sunak called the election because he thinks he has a better shot of winning sooner — or he wants to take an early summer vacation after losing.

“I have historically voted for the Tories,” Glenn said. “But I would say I’m politically homeless right now because I don’t really have any faith in either party, or the main parties.”

Although inflation has fallen, Sunak’s other promises — to grow the economy, reduce debt, cut waiting lists to see a doctor at the state-run National Health Service and stop the influx of migrants crossing the English Channel — have seen less success.

He has struggled after entering office following the disastrous tenure of Liz Truss, who lasted only 49 days after her economic policies rocked financial markets. Truss had been chosen by party members after Boris Johnson was ousted over a series of ethics scandals.

Photo from AP