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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced the country's next general election will take place in July.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

On the Fourth of July, as it happens. So why call for a vote when his party isn't doing well in the polls?

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PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: These uncertain times call for a clear plan and bold action to chart a course to a secure future. You must choose in this election who has that plan.

FADEL: As Sunak heads into campaign mode, he'll face a lot of questions about his personal record and his party's performance as the U.K.'s fourth Conservative leader in less than five years.

MARTÍNEZ: London-based journalist Willem Marx is here with all the details. Willem, yesterday's announcement was a little wet and wild. Tell us why.

WILLEM MARX: Well, Sunak came out of the famous front door at around 5 p.m., A. He stood at the podium. He started talking about his performance first as finance minister, then as prime minister after his predecessors - Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, you may remember - both resigned in quick succession. As he was speaking about his own record as leader, two rather unfortunate things happened. It started raining really heavily and a protester nearby used loudspeakers to drown out Sunak's words with a famous song over here titled "Things Can Only Get Better."

Ironically, Tony Blair had used it as a campaign anthem back in 1997 when his Labour Party drove the previous Conservative government out of office in kind of a landslide. So quite apart from the fact that Sunak's suit got very wet, it was hard to hear him when he started criticizing his opponents. That comparison was not - on people. And for a man who prides himself on his appearance, it wasn't a great start to a campaign as far as visual metaphors go.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, it was a odd scene. British prime ministers, though, can call elections. But this announcement was not expected until a lot later in the year, until the fall. So why do it now?

MARX: Well, his party has been trailing its Labour opponents in the polls for quite a long time. Successive scandals really began during the pandemic. We had Boris Johnson holding parties at Downing Street during lockdowns. We had Putin invading Ukraine, inflation soaring here in Britain, pushing up prices in stores. Then Liz Truss, the country's shortest-serving prime minister in history, introduced a budget that kind of sent the bond market crazy. That pushed up borrowing costs and mortgages for people. In short, Sunak's party is really unpopular. He personally has incredibly low personal poll ratings.

In light of this and all sorts of other policy difficulties and parliamentary defections, his opponents have been demanding an election for months. But Sunak didn't really explain why he chose July. It may simply have been because he didn't foresee the situation for him or his party getting any easier. And so, as many of the British newspapers have concluded this morning, he simply chose to kind of gamble.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So does Sunak have a strong enough record to gamble on?

MARX: Well, in fairness to him, he's time and again really explicitly told the British people they should judge him on his record and that he's more of a doer than a talker. That judgement is made a little easier by the fact that at the start of last year, he set out five key promises to the public. They included reducing inflation. That has happened, though it's not entirely down to him. He said he'd boost economic growth rates, which is finally starting to be visible after two years of really sluggish growth.

But on the other three issues, he's really struggled to make headway. He pledged to stop migrants using those small boats to cross from France. But his flagship policy to deport those people to Rwanda, it's been caught up in the courts for more than a year, hasn't yet started. Hospital wait times, they're still very, very long and government debt is at the highest it's been in half a century.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's journalist Willem Marx. Thank you very much.

MARX: Thanks, A.

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MARTÍNEZ: Russia's military has started tactical nuclear weapons drills.

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FADEL: Yeah, video released by the ministry showed crews preparing launch systems and readying a bomber to carry a nuclear warhead. President Vladimir Putin ordered the maneuvers earlier this month in response to what the Kremlin says are growing threats from the West amid the war in Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: Joining us to talk about all this is NPR's Charles Maynes on the line from Moscow. Charles, tell us more about these drills.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah, sure, A. You know, Russia's Defense Ministry says these were its initial phase of drills. They're intended to test non-strategic nuclear weapons and protect the homeland. So we're talking about less powerful but still very deadly nukes that could be used, in theory, in a war zone, on a battlefield. Now, the Kremlin has quite clearly linked these exercises to recent comments from Western officials, particularly senior French and British officials, that suggested a potentially deeper role for their countries in defense of Ukraine, perhaps even targeting sites inside Russia itself. According to Dmitry Stefanovich of the Center for International Security at the Primakov Institute here in Moscow, this was Russia firmly responding, saying don't.

DMITRY STEFANOVICH: On the Russian side, it is also a demonstration that there are tools that can match escalation at any level. Like, it's not only no conflict at all or massive nuclear exchange.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so it sounds calculated by the Kremlin. How much of it, though, is actual escalation?

MAYNES: Well, you know, on the one hand, of course, it is escalation in the sense we haven't seen this before amid the war in Ukraine. So it feels more visceral, more possible. Yet Andrey Baklitskiy of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research argues these exercises appear to be signaling for now.

ANDREY BAKLITSKIY: The good thing is that there is currently not, like, a huge uptick of changes on the battlefield. And I don't think anybody currently is thinking that this has anything to do with actual use. This is signal, right?

MARTÍNEZ: So it sounds like that old Cold War era term, deterrence, right? I mean, it does, though, come against the backdrop of growing nuclear tensions that have made things worse by the war in Ukraine.

MAYNES: Yeah, it does. And if we think back to the beginning of the war in 2022, Putin - President Vladimir Putin placed Russia's strategic weapons on special alert and repeatedly reminded the world of Russia's massive nuclear arsenal. I don't think anyone has any illusions as to why. Putin wants the West to think twice about its support for Ukraine and keep guessing at where the Kremlin's red lines are.

But this also comes against the backdrop of collapsing Cold War era nuclear agreements between the U.S. and Russia, a process that's been long underway. It started under the Bush W. White House and continued under the Trump administration. In fact, the New START treaty, which caps warheads at 1,550 apiece, is the only landmark nuclear agreement that's left and it's barely hanging on. Putin suspended Russia's participation in February of last year, citing U.S. military support for Ukraine, and the agreement is set to expire in 2026.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Charles, has everything we have just talked about raised concerns of a new arms race.

MAYNES: Well, Russia says it's abiding by New START's limits voluntarily for now. But there are concerns of a new arms race and increasingly on new frontiers like space. You know, the Pentagon, for example, accuses Moscow of launching some kind of nuclear anti-satellite weapon. Russia denies the charge. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Russia have been butting heads at the U.N. over rival proposals to ban weapons in space. But all that underscores, once again, the dangers of this crumbling nuclear security infrastructure and the spiraling lack of trust that comes with it, all of which is exacerbated by events in Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you very much.

MAYNES: A, thank you.

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MARTÍNEZ: It's a seller's market for housing these days.

FADEL: The only thing is there aren't very many sellers. Home sales fell last month even as the price of homes climbed to a record high for April.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to sort through all this. Scott, my wife and I are one of those couples. We spend our weekends going through open houses with no intent to buy. So I don't see a lot of for sale signs, though, anymore. Why is that?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: You're right, A, there's a real shortage of existing homes for sale these days. So the limited number of homes that are on the market, they're like the last donut in the office break room. Christine Richardson is a realtor in Northern Virginia. She says 80% of the houses she sold this year had multiple offers, including one that had 18 people bidding on it.

CHRISTINE RICHARDSON: Eighteen buyers loved that house and took the time to sit down and put together their best offer. And they were all fabulous offers. But only one out of those 18 got to buy a house at the end of it. You know, I just feel so bad. And I have to be the one that makes the 17 phone calls to say, I'm so sorry, but your client didn't get the house.

HORSLEY: That lopsided market is producing a windfall for sellers. The average home sold last month for just over $407,000. But Richardson also works with a lot of buyers, and so she says she'd much prefer to see a market that's more balanced between buyers and sellers.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so what's throwing the market out of balance?

HORSLEY: Seven percent mortgages. You know, that's not only kept a lot of buyers on the sidelines, it's also discouraged a lot of sellers, who don't want to give up the cheaper home loans they have now. Now, it is possible we'll see somewhat lower interest rates later this year, but it's starting to dawn on people that we're probably not going back to 3% or 4% mortgages anytime soon. So when a new baby comes along or a new job gets offered, some people are biting the bullet and making a move.

The number of homes on the market is starting to inch up. There are 16% more homes for sale now than there were a year ago at this time, and we're also seeing a modest comeback in first-time buyers. One out of three homes sold last month went to a first-time buyer. That's the largest share in more than three years. Now, of course, it can be a struggle for first-timers to come up with a down payment and meet these high monthly payments. But Milwaukee realtor Tom McCormick says in some ways, first-timers have an advantage in a market like this.

TOM MCCORMICK: They don't know any different. All they know is what they hear in the media and what we tell them, which is you've got to be ready to be hypercompetitive. And they go, OK, well, if that's what it takes, that's what it takes. Whereas that second-time buyer or third-time buyer, they're like, what are you - seriously? No, it wasn't like this last time. And they just kind of shake their head and go, wow.

MARTÍNEZ: I'm shaking my head as we speak, Scott. Any advice for someone trying to buy a house in a market like this?

HORSLEY: Yeah. If you're tripping over other people at the open house, chances are you're going to have competition.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

HORSLEY: So don't think you can make a lowball offer and then sweeten it later. You've got to come out of the gate with your best offer. And realtor Jack Gaughan of Nashville says you have to be ready to move fast.

JACK GAUGHAN: That's important, that you have all your financial documents and you've talked to a lender and have that all straightened out, because the people who are able to move quickly are the ones who end up succeeding. It's, you know, the people that drag their feet or aren't prepared to make an offer or maybe get cold feet after they already make that initial offer, that's the ones that get burnt in the end.

HORSLEY: More people are also looking at newly built houses. Because of the shortage of existing homes, builders are getting a bigger than usual share of sales these days. And we're going to learn more about what happened with new home sales a little bit later this morning.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks a lot, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMANOS GUTIERREZ'S "UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN") 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.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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