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2 December 2023

The Tories have no good reason to deny us an election

For too long, this country has been run for the benefit of the Conservative Party rather than the other way around.

By Jonn Elledge

Some stories that have caught my eye these last few days. The Guardian has a fascinating feature about the current chaos afflicting Lancashire’s court system, resulting from the fact that two of its magistrates courts, in Blackpool and Preston, have closed indefinitely. They, and four courts elsewhere in England and Wales, cannot reopen because of Raac, the crumbling concrete that forced more than 100 schools to close in September after the National Audit Office reported that years of insufficient funding had increased the risk of buildings collapsing.

Over in the East Midlands, Nottingham has become the seventh council to issue a section 114 notice and effectively declare itself bankrupt in just five years. Despite ministerial attempts to spin this as evidence of Labour waste, several of these councils were Tory-controlled. The Local Government Information Unit says as many as one in ten could yet follow suit.

Meanwhile, strikes on a scale not seen since the 1970s continue to affect multiple sectors; NHS waiting lists continue to rise; the number of children in temporary accommodation – the number of homeless kids – is at a record high; and the King has just told the Cop28 conference in Dubai that we are “dreadfully far off track” on the minor issue of existential climate change.

What, then, has Rishi Sunak been spending his week focused on? Changing Britain’s entire relationship with the concept of international law to enable his government to deport a handful of asylum seekers to Rwanda; and refusing to meet his Greek counterpart because he’d stated his country’s long-standing and factually correct position that the Elgin marbles were stolen. The main problem the Prime Minister seems interested in solving is his party’s dismal poll ratings. But he is failing, even at that (the latest YouGov poll gives Labour a 23-point lead).

There are many reasons the government is making few attempts to solve the country’s actual problems: the fiscal situation the UK finds itself in after 13 years of Tory mismanagement; the rolling political crisis of much of the last seven. But a big reason, surely, is that the government is simply exhausted. After this long in office it has cycled through every conceivable variant of Toryism, some of them more than once: it has run out of ideas and run out of (I used the word advisedly) talent.

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[See also: It only gets worse for Rishi Sunak]

It has also, by any sensible definition, exhausted its mandate. The last election was two prime ministers ago and was won, if we are honest, on the single, three-word slogan, “Get Brexit Done”. Brexit, whatever one may think of it, has been done: few other details from the Tories’ 2019 manifesto made an impact on the election campaign, and fewer stick in the memory today. It wouldn’t matter if they did. Not once, but twice, the party has changed leader and mission without bothering to go to the country to ask what anyone thinks.

It seems in little hurry to change that. Constitutionally, Sunak retains the right to remain in this holding pattern for another 12 months, waiting, like Mr Micawber, for something to turn up. Every day he waits without governing, the country gets a little worse, the difficulty of repairing it a little greater.

It isn’t good enough: the voters deserve to take back control. We should have an election, as soon as possible.

There are only two arguments I can see against doing so: that it delays the moment when a large number of Tory MPs find themselves unemployed; and that it could boost Rishi Sunak a few places up Wikipedia’s list of UK prime ministers by tenure (wait as long as possible, and he’ll climb from 49th to 40th, and overtake George Grenville). Neither of these are arguments, you will notice, that benefit anyone who is not a sitting Tory MP.

It’s not merely the Labour Party that stands to gain from an election being held sooner than next autumn. Moving the timetable up would bring forward the date on which somebody, somewhere, might actually start addressing the country’s myriad problems. It would force the opposition to set out what it actually plans to do, rather than keeping schtum as long as possible. It might even, in the long term, be good for the right, by substituting defeat for obliteration, and bringing the day when the Tory party can actually start to rebuild very slightly closer.

An election held in the spring would not, as some commentators claim, be “early”: in under two weeks, this parliament will have run for a perfectly normal four years; any date now counts as “late”. But it seems unlikely the Prime Minister will roll the dice, nonetheless. This country has been run for the benefit of the Conservative Party, and not the other way around, since at least January 2013, when David Cameron promised a referendum on Brexit for internal party management reasons. It hardly seems likely that, looking down the barrel of an epochal defeat, his successor will do anything differently now.

So the odds of an election before the autumn, if not later, seem almost vanishingly small. But as we wait for month upon month and the crises pile up with no attempt to address them, we should remember that this was a choice, made to benefit not the country but its leaders. And we should take that knowledge to the voting booth when we are finally allowed our say.

[See also: Alistair Darling was an unflashy hero of the kind we need]

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