Ever since Boris Johnson won his historic majority in 2019, Westminster watchers have been asking when he will call the next general election. Will he wait until the last moment in 2024, giving himself a full five years before seeking a new mandate? Or will he call an early election, hoping to catch the opposition before Keir Starmer’s troops can regroup?
Labour is preparing for an early vote. There were rumours on the fringes of the Conservative conference this week that a poll could come in 2023 or even as early as next year. The pandemic and its economic and social fallout have hugely complicated the calculation. So what is Johnson’s team thinking?
If you talk to Tory ministers and strategists, they are clear that the country is facing a period of turmoil coping with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. The government needs time to bring the backlog of NHS procedures down from its current size of more than five million so that the public can see that hospitals are safe and reliable. In his conference speech, Johnson warned that this backlog is likely to get worse before it gets better.
There is also a backlog in the courts system, with the queue of crown court cases awaiting trial now standing at 60,000. A creaking criminal justice system, with the police service already under fire, is a dangerous backdrop for an election campaign and that needs to be tackled.
Cost of living
Senior Conservatives see the danger that the cost of living crunch will turn into a full-blown crisis. Inflation is forecast to rise potentially to 4 per cent by Christmas, while supermarkets run low on food, energy bills soar and shortages of petrol at filling stations turn the basics of daily life into an anxiety-packed ordeal. Some of these problems are systemic – such as the shortage of HGV drivers – and are likely to take months or longer to resolve.
Universal Credit payments have just been cut by more than £1,000 a year for millions of households, while a tax rise to pay for the NHS and social care reforms is coming in from April. With government policies so clearly contributing to the squeeze on living standards, it would be a brave decision to call an early election before any of the extra tax revenue has delivered improvements on the health and care frontline.
If the Conservatives can wait until 2024, they will potentially benefit from the redrawing of the election map. Final plans for overhauling constituency boundaries are due in 2023 and on current proposals would see England – which is dominated by the Tory party – gain an extra 10 seats, while Scotland loses two and Wales eight.
Not another one
Johnson managed to trigger an early election in 2019 at a time when the country’s political system was in deadlock over Brexit and won a big mandate to break the stalemate and take the UK out of the European Union.
But two years earlier, Theresa May had called a snap election and lost the majority that she started with, despite being 20 points ahead of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party in the polls. Voters just didn’t see the need for an early contest. The sentiment was famously captured by “Brenda from Bristol”, who gave her reaction to a television crew when told about the election announcement: “You’re joking. Not another one. Oh for God’s sake. Honestly, I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on.” The hung parliament of 2017 still haunts ministers and officials. “We have to think of Brenda,” one said.
Johnson is in the happy position of being able to wait and see. With his large Commons majority he is set to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and take complete control over the timing of the next election. For now, at least, senior members of Johnson’s team say they don’t expect him to go to the country again before 2024.