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10 March 2021updated 12 Mar 2021 12:22pm

The Budget points to a 2023 general election but two things could go wrong for the Tories

Boundary changes and the political consequences of austerity could delay the Conservatives’ likely election timetable.

By Stephen Bush

Everything the Conservatives have done since the 2019 general election has been predicated on the next election being held in 2023, not 2024.

Until the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, parliaments only tended to last the full five years when the government feared defeat: that’s why the 1945, 1959, 1987, 1992 and 2005 parliaments ran their full lengths. (That which followed the October 1974 election did not because the Labour government collapsed, but had Jim Callaghan been able to avoid going earlier than required, he would have done so.)

While the introduction of fixed-terms was a net benefit to the UK constitution because it reduced the power of the executive relative to the legislature – and deprived the sitting prime minister of one of their many in-built advantages over the opposition parties – its most malign consequence was establishing five-year terms as the default rather than the exception.

There is no reason to repeal the act other than to regain that advantage, and part of that advantage lies in going to the country earlier than you need to: as incumbent governments did in 1955, 1959, 1970, February 1974, 1983, 1987, 2001 and 2005.  

[see also: How Labour can turn the Tories’ “levelling up” agenda against them]

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So a good hint that Boris Johnson’s first preference is for a 2023 election is the government’s imminent plan to repeal the act, while a stronger one is Rishi Sunak’s spending plans, which set him up for a giveaway Budget in 2023 and a very tight one in 2024. HuffPost UK’s Paul Waugh laid out a persuasive case as to the Chancellor’s thinking in his evening email.  

There is much that could go wrong for the government and lead it to wait until 2024, but it seems a reasonable central scenario that the Conservatives will at least try to go to the country in 2023, provided that their plan for increased austerity has had not averse political consequences for the party. 

[Hear more from Stephen on the New Statesman podcast]

I have to say, I personally think this is unlikely: Sunak’s plan for an additional £4bn of departmental spending cuts means the government is far more likely to end up having to pursue its plan B of a 2024 election, most likely after doing exactly what George Osborne did in his mid-term budgets: an easing of cuts with a hefty dose of hidden stimulus via infrastructure spending, particularly on roads.

But as Waugh notes, there is an added complexity: the constituency boundary review. For a variety of reasons, the United Kingdom is now long overdue a boundary review, and the Conservatives have long believed that boundary changes will redress an inequity that favours Labour. This isn’t really true any more due to changes in the two party’s support bases since 2005, but this fact need not overly trouble us: what matters is that Conservative MPs believe it to be true.

[see also: What will boundary changes mean for Labour and the Conservatives?]

As Waugh suggests, this means that there is in practice a very limited window for a 2023 election: the boundary changes are due to be unveiled in June, and I am yet to meet anyone in any party who wants a midwinter election again. That makes an election in August or September 2023 fairly likely.

There is another Tory advantage here, too: boundary changes are particularly difficult for the Liberal Democrats. A big part of the way they establish themselves as parliamentary challengers is localised campaigning around a specific set of issues. Significant boundary changes (which are likely given it has been more than a decade since the last review) will both reduce the Liberal Democrats’ hopes of making gains and force the party into a more defensive campaign than it would otherwise hope for.

Of course, you don’t have to think about this very long to see the potential risks for the Conservatives: let’s say that by the summer of 2023, it looks likely that the result of the next election is they are re-elected with a reduced majority. This is great for the Conservative Party as a whole, but it is not so good for individual Conservative MPs.

Boundary changes can often be times of great internal difficulty in political parties, and there is no guarantee which party will find the experience more traumatic. If the 2023 local elections have gone well for one party, it will be easier to sell the idea that, actually, trading a marginal seat with a majority of 1,000 for your side for one of 1,000 for the other side is no downgrade at all. If they have gone badly, then the whole experience may be more fraught.

And the political difficulties of finessing the Conservatives’ response to boundary changes may be one reason why, even if the Tories’ economic plan runs to script, they may find that 2024 is a more attractive date.