A relatively good few weeks for Rishi Sunak has resulted in the Conservative Party feeling much more optimistic about its election prospects and the talk is increasingly of calling a vote in May 2024. Waiting longer, the argument goes, looks defensive.
Of course, there is some sense in the government talking about a spring election. It conveys confidence (even if the movement in the polls is small) and it helps to ensure that the party is reasonably well prepared. By the time of this year’s Conservative conference in October, the party chairman, Greg Hands, hopes to have in place 100 new candidates.
May 2024, however, is still unlikely. The Conservatives would be doing very well indeed not to be trailing Labour in the polls this time next year. Human nature being what it is, the irresistible temptation for the Prime Minister would be to wait to see if something turned up. And even if it did not, it is surely preferable to be prime minister for 24 months than 18.
Theoretically, the next general election could be delayed until January 2025 but an election campaign spanning the Christmas holidays would be particularly unpopular. Any winter election comes with dark evenings and weather risks (snow and ice caused travel disruption on 12 December last year, the third anniversary of the 2019 general election). Anything later than October (and the clocks going back), will look like the government is frightened of the electorate.
The best bet is a Thursday in October. The 31st will be half term for schools in England and after the clocks have changed, while Halloween (imagine the headlines) is perhaps not ideal. This leaves 24 October as the last realistic date. The 17th is a possibility but will be half term in Scotland, ideally best avoided, and the 10th is also a contender.
There is historical precedent. Alec Douglas-Home, the Conservative prime minister, declined to fight a general election in May 1964, delaying it until 15 October. In doing so he kept Labour’s majority down to five, a better result for the Tories than looked likely in the spring.
If Sunak does go for October, there is another similarity to 1964. The month after a British general election, there will be a US presidential election. And, whereas in 1964 the contest between Lyndon B Johnson and Barry Goldwater impinged very little on our own elections, next year may prove to be very different. Donald Trump, assuming he is the Republican nominee, will be almost as hard to ignore in the UK as he will be in the US.
For conventional British politicians such as Sunak and Keir Starmer, there is an awkward tension in dealing with unpopular or uncongenial US presidential candidates. The US is traditionally our closest security ally and it is in the UK’s interests to make the relationship work. The British public might want a Love Actually moment but UK leaders will usually resist voicing strong criticism of US presidents or anyone with realistic aspirations for the position.
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Trump is in a class of his own, however. No other presidential candidate has previously been impeached as president, sought to overturn an election defeat through force and subsequently been criminally indicted. Even before any of those events, Theresa May was politically damaged by the photographs of Trump clutching her hand as she helped him down some steps. He is politically toxic.
Then add to the mix the intense scrutiny of a UK general election campaign. Avoiding commenting on his character and policies will be impossible.
Starmer, for example, would normally be circumspect in what he might say about US presidential candidates given that he might be working closely with them within a few months. Nor would he want to convey the instinctive anti-Americanism of Jeremy Corbyn. But equivocation over Trump would mystify his natural supporters. Discipline among Labour candidates would break down as the media highlighted every colourful criticism of the Republican candidate and asked for Starmer’s reaction. The Labour leader, if he wants to avoid appearing weak and inauthentic during an election campaign, has to be forthright in the language he uses about Trump. But this would leave the US-UK relationship in tatters if both Starmer and the notoriously thin-skinned Trump won.
Sunak has an even more difficult challenge because of the broad coalition of support the Conservatives obtained in 2019. Trump is deeply unpopular here but, to the extent that he has admirers in the UK, they almost certainly voted Tory at the last general election. Even under Sunak, the Conservatives rely on the support of authoritarian voters who rather like the anti-establishment, anti-woke, strong-man schtick of Trump. But if the Prime Minister indicates sympathy for that view, he will alienate the vast majority of the electorate, including a large part of the Conservative vote, who find Trump repellent.
And, again, a general election makes the task harder. Every Conservative parliamentary candidate will be asked their view of Trump by local papers and at constituency hustings. My guess is that Caroline Nokes, say, will take a very different view from Jonathan Gullis. Sunak will be asked with whom he agrees. He may try to fudge it but in doing so he would risk looking like a Trump apologist to the British public and a Trump critic to the man himself.
The probability is that Sunak will, in the end, go for an October election. But if he does, the chances are that he is – like much of the world – going to have a Donald Trump problem.
[See also: Why Keir Starmer is still struggling to cut through]