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19 September 2023

The Tories are eyeing a spring general election

Senior Conservatives believe that a “small boats” election in May could deliver victory.

By Andrew Marr

The view at Westminster is switching: a general election in the spring is now regarded as plausible, even likely, by senior figures across the political spectrum.

Until recently an October 2024 election was thought the safest bet. But last week Keir Starmer warned the shadow cabinet of the likelihood of an early summer poll and told them to prepare for one. My conversations with senior Conservatives confirm that it’s a sensible precaution.

At first sight, with the Tories still 20 points behind Labour in the polls, this might seem self-destructive. Rishi Sunak, who hasn’t in any way abandoned hope of winning, has based his entire strategy on delivery. From the Windsor Framework on Northern Ireland to public sector pay settlements with teachers and others, he believes he is making progress.

Wouldn’t going early be, in a sense, betting against himself?

It is a finely balanced and difficult choice. But arguments for going early are accumulating. First, the Channel boats crisis.  Ministers are growing increasingly confident that their appeal to the Supreme Court over the Rwanda deportation policy,  expected in November, will go the government’s way.

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If so, aircraft could be taking off by Christmas, as Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, dreamed. One idea is to have migrants taken almost as soon as they reach the shingle of English beaches and flown to Africa within days, to maximise the deterrent effect. This, of course, would be during the winter when weather conditions in the Channel will already be difficult for small boats. By the early spring, it may well be possible for Sunak to claim victory for his policy. Recent polling by YouGov shows immigration and asylum ranks third among voters’ concerns (although still far behind the economy).

This advantage, however, could be a relatively brief window: calmer waters and mild early summer weather could easily see a return of boat traffic and migration failure to the headlines. To cause Labour maximum difficulty, the Tories would want to go before that.

Next, the local elections due on 2 May 2024 look extremely tough for the Tories, and cover vast swathes of England: 107 different council elections (plenty in marginal seats), the London mayoral election – now looking tight – and another nine directly elected mayors. If Sunak has a bad night, that would be the worst possible backdrop for a general election later in the year and might increase the sense of an inevitable Labour victory.

Then there is the economy. Month by month, more and more homeowners are coming off fixed-rate mortgage deals and experiencing the full shock of higher interest rates.

And, as Liz Truss’s re-emergence this week has demonstrated, Tory factionalism has not gone away – indeed, it is only getting more ferocious as moderates and hardliners promise to fight “for the soul of the party”. This is a huge threat to the Prime Minister. How does he persuade them to belt up? As Dr Johnson nearly said, nothing concentrates the mind like the imminence of an election.

A spring or early summer contest would allow Jeremy Hunt to follow Norman Lamont in 1992 and prepare a spring Budget of electoral traps for Labour. Back then, Lamont’s Budget, which introduced a lower 20p tax rate for poorer earners and froze tax thresholds for wealthier voters, caused huge problems for the shadow chancellor, John Smith, whose “shadow budget” was widely, if perhaps unfairly, blamed for losing Labour an election the party was expected to win. The Tories had been in power for 13 years, were widely seen to be exhausted, and were heading towards a recession. Then, as now, Labour had enjoyed poll leads of up to 20 points.

But the truth is that the differences with 1992 are as great as the parallels. Those big opposition leads came towards the end of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and by the time of the 1992 election, Labour was only slightly ahead. Brexit, the experience of Boris Johnson and the Truss explosion have reshaped politics today. The Tory press is unlikely to be quite as vicious to Starmer as it was to Neil Kinnock. Historical comparisons are colourful but sketchy, unreliable guides.

Yet this one is transfixing both the Labour and Conservative leaderships. Even as they bring in the latest detailed – appalling – polling for the Tories, people close to No 10 are excited about the theatrics of an early, unexpected “small boats election” and Sunak “doing a Major”. Labour is still psychologically scarred by 1992. More than 30 years on, members of the shadow cabinet still vividly remember their shock and disappointment that night.

Politics is an emotional art, not a cold science: an election this spring has never seemed likelier.

[See also: Liz Truss is more realistic than you might think]

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