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Is Rishi Sunak about to call an election?

The Prime Minister’s demeanour only fuelled rumours that he is set to announce a July contest.

By Rachel Cunliffe

There was only one question Westminster wanted to know the answer to today: is Rishi Sunak about to call an election?

For reasons best known to himself, Keir Starmer chose not to ask about it at Prime Minister’s Questions, opting instead to devote all six of his questions to the contaminated blood inquiry. So with the frenzied speculation getting more intense by the minute, it fell to the SNP’s Westminster leader Stephen Flynn to do the honours: “Does the PM intend to call a summer general election, or is he feart?”

Sunak’s answer was nothing we haven’t heard many times before: “There is going to be a general election in the second half of this year.” Calendar nerds will be well aware that 4 July – the date that is whirring around Westminster – is technically the second half of the year.

It was impossible to miss Sunak’s Cheshire Cat grin as he answered Flynn. Clearly the Prime Minister is well aware of the rumours that started swirling just an hour before he entered the Commons chamber – rumours that, for whatever reason, No 10 aides have chosen not to dispel (unlike on previous occasions). And neither did Sunak.

A cabinet meeting is scheduled for 4pm. The pretext is that it’s the normal weekly meeting, rescheduled from Tuesday as Sunak was in Austria yesterday. But in the absence of a firm denial from Downing Street, it all starts to seem a lot more significant – especially as the Foreign Secretary David Cameron is reportedly flying back from an overseas trip early to make the meeting, while the Defence Secretary Grant Shapps is delaying a flight out.

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The mood in Westminster among both MPs and journalists is one of frantic bewilderment. Surely, some argue, today’s inflation figures (2.3 per cent) aren’t a good enough reason to go for a summer election, not when the Chancellor himself said on this morning’s broadcast round: “Do people feel better off now than a few years ago? No.” Surely a government planning an election announcement wouldn’t that same morning send the Deputy Prime Minister out to warn Brits to stockpile food.

Then again, if all this speculation comes to nothing, Downing Street will look ridiculous for having let the rumours get out of hand. Sunak will look ridiculous for grinning like a cat who’s been very clever indeed when answering Flynn’s question. The whole government operation will appear incompetent.

More incompetent than a government operation that kicks off a feel-good election campaign with a warning to stockpile food? Who knows. Nothing about today makes any sense.

It wasn’t just Sunak’s strange non-answer to Flynn that was strange. Questions are being asked too about Hunt’s position, with a government spokesperson refusing multiple times to confirm that he would still be Chancellor up until polling day. (There is suddenly renewed interest in the Energy Secretary and close Sunak ally Claire Coutinho, who some suggest might be in line to nab the title of first female chancellor with a shock promotion before Rachel Reeves gets her hands on the keys to the Treasury.)

And if that weirdness weren’t enough, PMQs began and ended with a breach of parliamentary protocol, as the House stood up four times to applaud the South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay as he entered the chamber. After having his hands and feet amputated following a life-threatening episode of sepsis, Mackinlay has returned to the House as the first “bionic” MP, joking that his new high-tech hands and feet meant he had to break the Commons dress code by wearing trainers and no jacket. He and Sunak both paid tribute to the NHS staff who had saved his life – and with that, PMQs was over.

To say more questions have been raised than answered would be an understatement.

[See also: Iran after Raisi]

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