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How will Rishi Sunak solve his general election dilemma?

The Prime Minister risks being labelled a “bottler”.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Politics is returning to life after the Christmas break. That means it’s time to resume everyone’s favourite Westminster debate: when will the election be?

Technically, Rishi Sunak could go to the country as late as 28 January 2025. But waiting that long would mean holding the campaign over Christmas (which no one wants) and the Prime Minister himself has dismissed this possibility, telling journalists on 18 December that 2024 would be an election year. That means we’re looking at a contest in the next 12 months. Prime ministers also like to avoid campaigning over the long summer recess, and the government has been advised by the security services for it not to clash with the US presidential election on 5 November.

So Sunak’s options are essentially a spring election in May or June (preferably coinciding with the local and mayoral elections which will be held 2 May), or an autumn one in October or late November.

We have already had some signals that Sunak is keeping open the option of a May election. At the Autumn Statement in November, Jeremy Hunt announced that the cut in National Insurance from 12 per cent to 10 per cent would take effect from 6 January. Tax changes usually apply from the start of the tax year in April, so the decision to implement a £10bn cut earlier was an indication that Sunak and Hunt want people to feel the benefits as soon as possible (even if the overall tax burden is still rising). Tax cuts in April would be too late if the election was held in May.

Then in the middle of the Christmas break, on 27 December, Hunt increased the speculation of a May election by announcing that the Budget would be held on 6 March (earlier than usual). The hints of further tax cuts we heard over the break, most notably to inheritance tax, may form the Tory strategy: cut taxes in early March, then go to the polls in May with the message that Labour will make you poorer.

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Keir Starmer’s party is also readying itself for a spring election. As my colleague Freddie Hayward reported in December, shadow cabinet members have been given a deadline of 8 February to finalise their manifesto policies, so they will be ready for May. And when I interviewed the Reform UK leader Richard Tice in November, he told me his party planned to have all its candidates vetted and in place in time for a May election too. As for the public, a new Deltapoll survey out today shows that two thirds of voters want an election by spring, summer, or simply as soon as possible.

It is easy to see why Sunak would want a May election: it gives him the chance to look decisive and avert accusations of “clinging on” until the last possible moment. It also allows him to avoid holding an election after another summer of Channel boat crossings (an issue that the government has succeeded in raising the profile of but failed to deliver on). Tories have also warned Sunak that waiting until the autumn could cost the party a “million votes” as households remortgage and are forced to pay hundreds of pounds a month more. Finally, if the local and mayoral elections in May are particularly bruising for the Conservatives, Sunak’s position will be weakened further meaning he could face a renewed challenge to his leadership.

But for all this, such speculation is exactly that: speculation. The polls are simply too dismal for the Tories, with Labour enjoying a stubborn lead of around 15-20 points for the past year and trumping the Conservatives in all key policy areas. Prime ministers may not like the risk of being called desperate, but they like calling elections they are doomed to lose even less. The memory of Theresa May’s 2017 campaign still haunts the Conservatives. And May was polling far better then than Sunak is now – unless the numbers suddenly improve, why would he gamble? The Tory MPs I’ve spoken to, including both Sunak backers and foes on the right, consider the chances slim. “Something radical would have to change,” one told me.

We’ll have another chance to test how reliable Labour’s vote is early this year with a by-election due in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, the former seat of the Tory Peter Bone, who was suspended as an MP for bullying. A contest is also expected in Blackpool South, as Scott Benton faces a recall petition over a lobbying scandal. The first would be considered a safe Tory seat in normal times; the second is a marginal that was held by Labour for 22 years before 2019. Labour is expected to win both. If the Tories retain one, that could give Sunak the confidence to go for May, but it’s hard to see him making that call if he suffers humiliating defeats of the kind seen in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth last October. Add in the inevitable NHS winter crisis and further internal feuds over the Rwanda bill and Sunak’s position in spring may look even weaker.

For now, dangling the prospect of a May election may be a helpful party management tactic to Sunak. It enables him to maintain a level of discipline from backbenchers who might otherwise cause trouble. But it also comes with a significant risk: that Sunak will appear to have “bottled it” if he fails to deliver in May. As prime minister, Gordon Brown never recovered from the 2007 “election that never was”. And the vocal “predictions” from Labour that an election will be held in the first six months of the year prepare the ground for Keir Starmer to accuse Sunak of being indecisive and cowardly if one is not held. Sunak could neutralise that threat by ruling out a spring election this week, but that removes the option of going early – and right now, that option is valuable to him.

The most likely scenario is this: Sunak keeps up the pretence that there will be an election in May as long as he can, placating his party with promises of further tax cuts, but goes cold on the idea if the polls don’t improve and the by-elections go badly. Labour capitalises on his hesitancy and stresses how much the public wants an election after what will then be 14 years of Tory government. But the Conservatives limp on until autumn, all the while embroiled in a leadership contest to replace Sunak. Happy 2024.

[See also: The SNP will have nowhere to hide in 2024]

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