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22 May 2024

The Tories have no hope of avoiding defeat

All Rishi Sunak can do now is try to prevent the electoral wipeout projected by polls.

By David Gauke

The consensus among most pundits for some time (including this one) was that the general election would be in the autumn of 2024. We were wrong.

Before trying to understand why Rishi Sunak has not behaved as expected and gone for 4 July, it is worth stating why many of us assumed he would wait.

Human nature being what it is, the Prime Minister might have hoped that something might turn up. Recent news on the economy has been largely positive, perhaps a feel-good factor would return by November? It would also be entirely natural for him to delay an election because that way he gets to be Prime Minister for longer. It is a rare privilege to get to do the job (admittedly, not as rare as it was), so why bring it to an end earlier than necessary?

Viewed from that perspective, going for an election in July appears to be a brave and even commendable act. Rather than engaging in wishful thinking, Sunak appears clear-eyed and realistic. Rather than drifting in the hope that something will turn up, he has seized the initiative. Rather than having his judgement clouded by personal considerations, he is taking a dispassionate view based on the interests of his party and/or the country.

That is the generous interpretation and there is some truth to it. There are plenty of politicians in his circumstances who would have focused unduly on reaching their second anniversary as Prime Minister, who would fancy a summer hanging out at Chequers, and who would have convinced themselves that another few months of rising living standards would make all the difference. If the Conservatives can convince the public that the election announcement reflects well on Sunak’s character, they have got their election campaign off to a good start.

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There is, of course, an alternative interpretation that also has more than a little truth to it. Matters may be bad for the Tories at the moment but – it will be alleged – Sunak knows that this is as good as it gets.

We have had plenty of positive economic news in recent weeks, but the political rewards may be no greater in November than they are today. (Old hands will recall that the economy grew strongly for four years in advance of the 1997 general election, for all the good it did John Major.) The election being called is being seen as evidence that the public finances are too weak for further tax cuts in a pre-election Autumn Statement and inflation too strong for further interest rate cuts in June.

The Rwanda plan remains a bad policy. Either no flights will happen or they will but the small boats will not stop. There are parts of the public realm that could go badly wrong. More local authorities could go bust; the summer can be a difficult time for overcrowded prisons.

Then there is party discipline. You might think that the last few months of a parliament will see a sustained period of discipline from Conservative MPs. Correction: you might think that if you are unfamiliar with Conservative MPs. The threat of a coup attempt may have receded but who knows how many scandals or defections might have happened over the next six months? I would be surprised if the whips were advising Sunak that the answer is none.

Sunak’s personal motives for going early will also be questioned. This is not the action of a brave and principled leader but an act of political suicide by someone who can bear the job no longer, it will be claimed. The Westminster gossip has long been that he is not enjoying being Prime Minister and that his wider family find the personal criticism of him hard to take. A post-prime ministerial summer in Santa Monica has been too hard to resist, it will be said. He will be accused of giving up (including, privately, by many Tory MPs), an accusation he must refute in the way in which he campaigns. 

Whichever interpretation prevails, it will not change the election result. The “time for a change” mood is already too strong for the Tories to pull off a surprise victory. But there must still be hope that the wipeout currently predicted by the polls can be avoided. There are a reasonable number of “don’t knows” who look like Tories. Some will surely return to the fold. The wind has also gone out of the sails of Reform UK, and Nigel Farage does not look like a man who is going to make an eighth attempt at winning a parliamentary seat. The most Sunak can achieve now is minimise the scale of the defeat.

In all the party political considerations, it is worth recognising the national interest (too often ignored). Had the Tories waited until November, the extra four months would have been a time of economic uncertainty. Business decisions would have been put on hold, the political parties would have been tempted to enter unrealistic bidding wars, the country would have been listless and lacking direction.

Until today’s decision, a long and somewhat depressing campaign was in prospect. We can at least be grateful to Sunak for sparing us that.

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