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25 January 2024

Why Labour is still preparing for a May general election

Morgan McSweeney told the NEC that Rishi Sunak could be forced to “pre-empt” a leadership challenge.

By George Eaton

The consensus inside Westminster is that a general election will now be held this autumn. Isaac Levido, the Conservatives’ campaign director, has reportedly pencilled in 14 November as polling day; Rishi Sunak has said his “working assumption” is that he will go to the country in the second half of this year. In view of the state of the polls – Labour’s lead is as high as 27 points – this is perhaps unsurprising. The assumption is that the Conservatives will seek to give the economy longer to recover and hold as many as two tax-cutting budgets this year.

But Labour, at least, is still preparing for a general election on 2 May (the same day as the locals). This, you might think, is only prudent: Sunak has not definitively ruled out this date. But at a meeting on Tuesday (23 January) of Labour’s National Executive Committee, Morgan McSweeney, the party’s campaign director, expanded on why he believes a May contest is possible.

At the gathering, held at Labour’s Southwark HQ in London, McSweeney said the febrile atmosphere inside the Conservative Party meant Sunak may have to call an election to “pre-empt” a leadership challenge. The Prime Minister, he said, is not in control of events and the Tory party is broken and divided. Fifty-three letters from Conservative MPs are required to trigger a confidence vote, and party donors and backbenchers are increasingly alarmed by Sunak’s failure to revive Conservative support.

McSweeney cited further evidence that the Conservatives are keeping the option of a May election open: the Budget is being held on 6 March (earlier than usual) and the 2p cut in National Insurance contributions is taking effect this month – at a cost of £2.6bn to the Treasury. The Tories, he noted, have accelerated candidate selections, cancelled the House of Lords recess in order to pass the Rwanda bill, and have increased spending on direct mail and leaflets in 80 key marginal seats. They have also quietly raised the national spending limit for general elections from £19m to £34m, a sign the party does not regard the contest as a lost cause.

Whether Sunak calls a spring election may yet hinge on the polling response to the promised tax-cutting Budget on 6 March. To trigger a 2 May contest, the Tories, McSweeney said, would need to dissolve parliament by 26 March. Whatever Sunak’s true intentions, Labour is preparing for the possibility that events could yet overwhelm him.

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[See also: Why Labour must improve relations with Europe]

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