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17 February 2024

The distressing case for a 2025 general election

I’m starting to think this is not an election year after all.

By Jonn Elledge

In my wardrobe, there is a very nice shirt, which ceased to fit a very long time ago. Occasionally, I go to chuck it, but I can never quite bring myself to do it, because it is very nice, and because there is just a chance that, one day, it will fit – that I will somehow do the things required to make it fit. Throwing it out, after all, seems so final. Once I throw it out, I will certainly never be able to wear it again.

In December Rishi Sunak reassured bored journalists that 2024 would be an election year; later, he said his assumption was that the contest would take place “in the second half of the year”. If I’m honest, though, I’m beginning to worry that Sunak has roughly the same relationship to his premiership as I’ve got to that bloody shirt – that he’ll keep finding reasons not to chuck it out. A 2025 election is feeling unnervingly plausible.

That second assurance had come in denial of rumours that plans for a spring election were now the “worst kept secret in Westminster”. Such rumours had almost certainly originated on a whiteboard in Labour HQ, and had been spread purely so the opposition could call the PM a bottler, but that’s not the only reason it’s not going to happen. For a May election to take place, Sunak would need to press the button in a matter of weeks. Why on Earth would he do that when he’s 20 points behind in the polls?  

None of the things that might change that, after all, are going his way. Britain has slid back into recession: that’s not just bad in and of itself, it deprives the Chancellor of “headroom” for the sort of tax cuts his party has convinced itself will fix the polls (even though, on the evidence of last November’s Autumn Statement, it isn’t). That means no feel-good pre-election Budget, and that means no spring election; cling on, instead, for better fiscal news in the autumn. 

Nor did Thursday’s by-elections in Kingswood or Wellingborough provide any succour. All the talk in the run-up was of how Labour’s Rochdale chaos, which won’t vote for another two weeks, could impact events further south. It was said that even a narrow victory in one of the seats, which the Tories last won with five-figure majorities, would give the party back its momentum, just as the Uxbridge by-election was supposed to have done last summer. If that had happened, a lobby desperate for a narrative shift – some because they want the Tories to win; some because they’re simply bored – might have declared the election competitive again. And a prime minister drunk on client media coverage might have felt emboldened to jump.

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But the voters didn’t get the memo and sent back two Labour MPs all the same: the Tory-Labour swing in Kingswood was the second largest seen since the Second World War. The Tory line remains, hilariously, that this shows there’s no enthusiasm for Labour, but nonetheless: why call an election while safe seats are tumbling to the opposition on record swings?

And so it seems likely to continue. It’s hard to imagine May’s local elections, in places that last went to the polls during the Tory Covid bounce, being anything but a rout of the Conservatives: Sunak won’t press the button after that. The subplot in Thursday’s by-elections, in which Reform finally won the double figure vote shares the polls have been promising, is likely to embolden the right. And that would mean another summer of Tory civil war, and we likely won’t get an election then, either.

Then we’re into the autumn, which was always briefed as the most likely date. But the law requires there to be at least five weeks between the dissolution of parliament and the date of the general election, which means that for an election to take place in October it would have to have been called in September. If Sunak misses that window – the few short weeks between the end of summer and party conference season – then the election can’t take place until November.

But then it’ll clash with the US presidential election, and so there are more reasons to hold off. A potential Donald Trump victory with all the instability for the Western alliance that follows will seem a very good reason for not holding an election here in the UK, as we are another significant Nato power. True, Joe Biden may squeak it; but by the time we’d know that, a contest won’t be possible until mid-December. No voter will thank a government that makes them think about politics in the run-up to Christmas.

You see the problem. A government with a small majority can be brought down in parliament. If the news is good enough, a prime minister with a larger one can persuade himself to make a gamble. But dying governments that nonetheless won’t lose a confidence vote hang on to the bitter end. There are only a few short windows in which Sunak would need to feel emboldened enough to take a risk if we’re actually to have an election this year.

But the good news isn’t coming. The picture, for the Tories, is unremittingly bleak. There is always a reason to hang on, in the hope tomorrow will be better. There is always a reason to believe that tomorrow, just maybe, the shirt will fit.

I don’t want this to be true. I have rarely wanted more to be wrong. But I’m starting to think this is not an election year after all.

[See also: No country for old men?]

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