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22 May 2024updated 23 May 2024 4:11pm

Rishi Sunak’s dismal election launch mirrors Tory fears

The Prime Minister and his party know that they have little hope of avoiding defeat.

By Freddie Hayward

Game on. The speculation is over. Labour has what it wants. Rishi Sunak has called a general election for 4 July. The Prime Minister made the announcement in Downing Street earlier as rain splattered over his suit, creating puddles in the creases. It was not the scene he would have chosen. As the rain fell, his words were drowned out by D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better”, New Labour’s theme tune during the 1997 election campaign. But Labour strategists today will hope to replicate another July election, that of 1945.

Rumours ricocheted around Westminster all day that an election announcement was due after No 10 refused to rule it out. Speculation mounted; Sunak gave a small laugh at PMQs when he was asked to confirm the story and merely reiterated that the election would be in the second half of this year. The keen observers in the press gallery noted that the second half of the year begins on 1 July. Labour advisers were given permission to book their summer holiday this week, so confident was Westminster that the election would be in the autumn. They will now have to cancel their Mediterranean sojourns.

Sunak began his speech emphasising one of the few weapons he has in his inventory: the furlough scheme. His message was clear: he is the man that stands with the country in times of hardship, the leader who keeps the country safe when danger threatens. “I have never and will never leave the people of this country to face the darkest days alone,” he said. He reeled off his other key talking points: economic security and the absence of Labour’s plan for government. The economy had now turned a corner, he argued, and voters shouldn’t jeopardise this. You will be hearing these arguments every day for the next six weeks.

But why now? No one was expecting the election to be before the summer. The power to choose the date is one of the Prime Minister’s most cherished powers. He can check rebellions within his party and keep an anxious opposition guessing. Or as one cabinet minister put it to me earlier: “The speculation gets the opposition’s blood pressure up, gives them ulcers and makes them spend money.”

The main reason to think that he wouldn’t call an election now was psychological. Sunak surely knows that defeat is the most likely outcome. The Conservatives are 20 points behind Labour in the polls. Why not, therefore, hold on for as long as possible to ensure he is remembered as a two-year prime minister? Sunak is not someone used to losing and as that cabinet minister also said, holding on means “more time at the crease, and as they say in politics, something might turn up”.

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Instead, Sunak has now surrendered himself to the electorate. He has six weeks to convince the public that the Tory party should govern for another five years and that he is better suited to the role of prime minister than Keir Starmer. He will not be able to prevent voters and the media holding him to account for the failures of the past 14 years. Any attempt to win on the back of “economic competency” will be repelled with cries of “but what about Liz Truss?” Sunak had the chance to present himself as distinct from his predecessors when he first entered office, but he chose party unity over carving a new direction.

That will play into Labour’s strategy. We know the party will campaign on the promise of a “decade of national renewal” through its five missions for government. Both parties will now have to rush through final selections for the seats. LabourList reported this morning that the party still has around 100 candidates to announce.

Tory sources confirmed months ago that the Conservatives’ strategy for the election would always focus on the economy. It tops voters’ priorities and suits Sunak’s background and self-perceived skillset. Sunak has no rabble-rousing, populist streak. Nonetheless, it invites the question of why No 10 invested so much time in the Rwanda scheme only to call an election before the first flights could take off. But imagine if a flight did take off and the boats kept arriving. That would only worsen the public’s distrust towards the government over immigration.

Instead, this will be an election on the Conservatives’ suboptimal record in office. The Tories will passionately try to shift the focus on to Labour, painting them as profligate, tax-raising, wealth-destroying, woke socialists. But Starmer’s modus operandi for the past four years has been to neutralise that attack, to make himself unscary and safe. Critics argue this has come at the cost of offering a programme that could solve the endemic problems facing the country. But heading into this campaign, Labour strategists will be satisfied with their choice.

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