Rishi Sunak has been faced with a series of tricky dilemmas as prime minister: policy questions over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the UK tax burden and on public expenditure — each involving unique party-management puzzles — have featured throughout the PM’s nigh-on year-old premiership. Consequently, Sunak has attempted to make a virtue of his purported dignified doughtiness under pressure: see his oft-repeated talking points about “difficult decisions” and, more recently, emphasis on his singular willingness to shatter prevailing consensuses on net zero and HS2.
But questions continue to swirl over whether Sunak has really risen to the challenges he inherited and has overseen as prime minister. His decision to abstain over the “partygate” reports into Boris Johnson and his allies saw the PM accused of pursuing passivity and spectator-status when the stakes seemed at their highest.
Still, as the PM’s premiership rumbles on, the stakes will get higher still; and an even more profound quandary awaits the PM over the matter of when to trigger an election. It is not a responsibility from which Sunak can shirk (forever, at least): the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022 outlines that an election must be called before December 17 lest the commons automatically dissolve. After a period of campaigning, it means the last possible date for an election is January 28, 2025.
The prime minister is, therefore, running out of time to hone his case to the public before his inevitable, and inaugural, encounter with the electorate. And while it is possible that Sunak currently has a date in mind — or perhaps more likely a preferred period — events between now and an earmarked election date will weigh heavy on his thinking. The Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth by-elections, which saw the Labour Party overturn vast Conservative majorities last week, are two such events.
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In this way, these results have probably made an election in January 2025 more likely than ever. Self-preservation instincts, combined with his intent to strike down Labour’s towering poll lead, could see the government stretch time in this parliament to its limit. This is despite there being possible prima facie cases for a general election to be held in either Spring or Autumn next year (we’ll get to those).
Indeed, after Mid Beds and Tamworth, Sunak’s question is not whether he should go “long” or “short” with an election — but “how long?”.
Going ‘short’: the possible benefits of a Spring election
As I have stated before, Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” is the most politically sensitive of his New Year commitments. Ensuring success can be touted on this metric you would think, therefore, will be a necessary consideration as PM plots a path to a national poll.
A crucial fact to consider here is that small boat crossings tend to be at their lowest over winter. If this seasonal pattern repeats itself over the coming months, proponents of a Spring poll will argue Sunak could seize on the success of his immigration crackdown and fight an election on what has historically been uncomfortable territory for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party.
There could be some mileage in a May election for other reasons, too. A Spring poll would lessen the potential electoral punishment levied on the Conservative government for rising mortgage payments as, month by month, more homeowners who have been shielded from the effects of interest rates (due to being on relatively low fixed-rate mortgages) see their deals expire. The longer Sunak waits for an election, the more potent “long Truss” will be, this reading holds — especially with a Labour Party keen to leverage her fiscal foibles as part of its own pitch on economic credibility.
Additionally, with the local elections scheduled for 2 May, an election held on this date could see the Conservatives avoid the implications of a bad showing at the locals coming ahead of the general. 107 council elections — a number of which are in marginal seats — as well as nine directly elected mayorships are up for grabs on 2 May 2024. A poor performance at the locals, ahead of a possible Autumn election, would deepen the sense of malaise and feeling of fin de régime in the Conservative party. Holding both the local and the general election on the same day would thus avoid this problem.
However, as this argument in essence admits, heading to the polls in May would be a serious electoral gamble. It is far from clear, especially in light of the Mid Beds and Tamworth results last week, that the PM can spark some kind of polling revival in the seven months from now to May.
And given that three of the prime minister’s “five pledges” are economic in focus, waiting for some improvement on his key indicators could benefit the PM’s standing significantly. Ultimately, if it really is the economy, stupid, Sunak should probably tune out those calling for the government to “go short” with an election.
On “small boats”, too, while seasonal variation has raised speculation the Sunak might “go” in the Spring, there are other, more significant, factors to consider here.
Indeed, according to recent reports, ministers are less and less confident that the government’s flagship Rwanda deportations plan will be deemed lawful by the Supreme Court in a judgement due by mid-December. The Daily Mail reported at the weekend that civil servants are beginning to price-in a setback: the odds are 60-40 against victory, officials estimate according to the paper.
In this way, if the £140 million Rwanda plan ends up being a dead end, a “small boats”-orientated election would be far less politically effective. This is especially true given Starmer is ever keen to rubbish the government’s flagship deportations scheme as a “gimmick”.
And, even if the plan is deemed lawful by the UK’s highest court, the Daily Mail also reports that ministers favour an inaugural charter flight taking off to Rwanda on Saturday, February 24 — not this Christmas as previous proponents of the Spring election thesis have suggested.
Therefore, a general election on 2 May, to coincide with the locals, would give the government just seven days to bask in the long-trailed glory of the Rwanda plan. It simply would not allow the government enough time to claim victory on “stopping the boats”, while staring down Labour attacks on the purported “gimmick”-reliant strategy.
There is also no getting around the fact that an election in May would, if the polls fail to rally, be manifestly self-destructive. Governments only tend to call an election before the end of the five-year term when confident of success; the act of staking the future of the party, and the careers of a horde of MPs on an optimistic hunch, would be rubbished in some quarters of the Conservative Party as reckless. For this, and the reasons outlined above, a May election seems a seriously unlikely prospect.
So (very) ‘long’, prime minister
The political attractions of a late election are, in this way, manifest. And Sunak’s choice, informed by both self-preservation and basic political logic, could thus be confined to going “long” (an Autumn poll) or, indeed, “very long” (a poll in January 2025).
Crucially, one of the biggest drags for the Conservative Party right now remains the events of 2022. Further distance from that could see the Conservative party finally exorcise the spectre of “Long Boris” from its polling; this is, after all, a factor which loomed so large in the Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire by-elections. Of course, more time will also mean more campaign preparation and further opportunities for Sunak to gain ground on his five priorities.
“So ‘long’ or ‘very Long’?”, prime minister.
One key sticking point implicated in this question is the matter of holding the Conservative Party’s annual conference. These annual get-togethers not only present an opportunity for a party to launch policy positions under the glow of the media spotlight, but also to raise crucial pre-election funds.
A planned Autumn election would raise doubts about when the Conservative Party could feasibly hold its conference — or whether it would forgo the fête altogether. Indeed, even if Sunak goes ahead with his conference, in the hope that a pre-election focus will concentrate the minds of manoeuvring MPs, this would mean activists attending boozy fringes rather than the doorsteps of marginal constituencies.
What is more, an Autumn poll also runs the risk of overlapping with the US election — which is penned in for November 5 next year. Officials have told the Times newspaper that they believe this to be a “huge” security risk with hostile actors attempting to influence results on both sides of the Atlantic.
There would also be a political risk for the PM — as elements of his Conservative Party and the presumed Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, mutually cosy up. If transatlantic election schedules converge, given Keir Starmer’s embrace of the Democrats and Joe Biden, Sunak may be forced onto some tricky diplomatic-political territory.
In this way, a January 2025 general election would avoid any overlap with the US’, and square the circle about what to do with a party conference. Indeed, a pre-election conference, if Sunak does signal his intention to go “very long”, would serve to focus minds in his party after the Conservatives’ display at Manchester last month saw factions, and one very conspicuous ex-PM, compete for media attention.
But, above all, a January 2025 election means more time for the PM: more time to hone a coherent vision; more time to stamp his authority on his party as factions swirl and egos agitate; more time to prove to his party he can win; more time to advance on NHS waiting lists, industrial action, small boats crossings, economic growth and inflation; and, thus, more time to win the “trust” of voters — as he committed to in his first address outside No 10 as PM.
The drawbacks of going very ‘long’
Of course, if Sunak does go for an election as late as possible, this will itself become a talking point in the following campaign — not to mention the preceding months.
As John Major found in 1997, with the polls against him, the optics of being seen to hold onto power past one’s time are inherently politically difficult. It is one reason why Lord Daniel Finkelstein, a former adviser to Major, is publicly advising the PM to go some distance “shorter”. He recently told Sky News: “When I look back on the 1997 election, I think one thing we could have done to mitigate the size of our defeat is to have gone slightly earlier”.
Indeed, Sunak remains, as opposition parties like to point out, a “man without a mandate”. Shirking a public poll until January 2025, therefore — after previously coronated Conservative PMs Theresa May and Boris Johnson eventually sought an electoral endorsement — will prompt significant attacks from opposition parties.
Moreover, a January 2025 poll would also mean a winter election and Christmas campaigning — something which has not happened since 1910. It would be looked upon dimly by the party activists, whom Sunak must somehow inspire.
Then there are questions about whether Sunak’s tilt “change” will survive more than a year of further Conservative government. If a general election is held in January 2025 (or earlier, even), would Sunak not then have had enough time to pivot against the political consensus he now so abhors? Can someone still be a “change candidate” having, in theory, agitated for change for over a year in government?
A final point is that, were we to frame our “long”-“short” dichotomy in the fullness of this parliament, we are already about to enter its fifth year. It means any time in 2024 will be “long”, no matter the specified season. And, crucially, the public are beginning to recognise this: a recent poll for More in Common suggested 73 per cent of the public want an election before May 2024.
Thus, one common view is that if Sunak holds on all the way through 2024, he will risk inviting the ire of the public at large — who, like voters in Selby, Somerton, Tamworth and Mid Beds, seem desperate to give the government a kicking.
But if we are now inexorably approaching “long” territory, why would Sunak not stick it out to the end, see through the term the Conservative Party was granted in 2019, and give himself as much time as possible to inspire a revival and avoid a much-foretold “kicking”? Whichever way you look at it, a January 2025 general election — while other dates might perhaps be likelier — looks itself more likely than ever.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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